Posts Tagged ‘mental illness in drama’

Review – The Last Yankee – The Print Room

September 9, 2013

You wouldn’t think a 75 minute play could really be as intense as The Print Room’s production of The Last Yankee was, but, wow, what a roller coaster ride this was. Firmly in the continuum of plays about mental illness stretching from Long Day’s Journey into Night right up to last year’s The Effect, The Last Yankee had nearly no sense of datedness to it thirty years later. Mental illness is still a problem, and people still don’t know how to deal with it; the people who have it struggle, while their families frequently have to deal with shame as well as the difficulties of managing the situation.

This play is set in a mental institution in a New England town. Two men, Mr Frick (Andy de la Tour) and Mr Hamilton (Paul Hickey), meet in the lobby, where they’re both waiting to see their wives, who are patients. Frick is an older go-getter, owner of a successful hardware store/lumber yard and possibly a car dealership or two; he and his wife have no children. Hamilton is a 40s-ish father of seven who works as a carpenter and is learning to play the banjo. Frick tries to make small talk with Hamilton, but his obsession with money and status grate on the younger man; Hamilton finally blows up at Frick, saying, “This is why people are mentally ill in this country!” (or something of the sort). He then backs off and apologizes, and the scene ends uncomfortably.

This scene was utterly fascinating for me to watch with a British audience. The obsession with class here has been a constant mystery to me, but here were two American(s) (characters) discussing it in the American way: the focus on clothing, occupation, and parentage seemed so familiar, while the fluidity with which one casts off one’s “birth” caste and moves into another was completely foreign in my new country’s experience. I think people were fascinated by the clues Americans process to see how to “slot” one in to their class, but I was also completely willing to accept that Hamilton really didn’t give a rat’s patootie about what his dad did for a living and was utterly happy working as a carpenter – and with no sense of having “stepped down.” It’s not an American way to feel. In fact, it was the rich man who wanted to see him as “one of my sort” who was the crass and inappropriate one – but to be honest, I think he read that way to everyone.

Hamilton’s speech, though, to me seemed like a Shavian soap box moment on Miller’s part. Class and an obsession with money is what makes people mentally ill? It was a bit hard to swallow – impossible, actually. And Miller took a much more nuanced approach to the causes, effects and impacts of mental illness in the rest of the play, making this bit of posturing seem both out of place and fortunately forgettable as a blip in an otherwise excellent play. Miller will be Miller, standing up for the nobility of the common man … you just have to let it pass. My engagement in this scene was not helped by the fact that de la Tour’s acting was a bit heavy – aimed more for the second balcony rather than the extremely intimate print room. His character wants to be the center of attention, sure, but he was almost vibrating to my eyes and ears.

The second half of the play takes place inside of the women’s ward of the institution, where a woman I assumed to be Mrs Hamilton (Patricia – Matilda Ziegler) can be heard playing ping pong in the rec room with another patient (at least I think they were playing together). Patricia comes into the room with her friend, Karen (Kika Markham), and it quickly becomes clear they are on very different stages of their recovery. Patricia seems a bit manic and a little paranoid, but she’s able to consistently talk in full sentences. She reveals to us that she’s stopped taking her meds, which immediately made me wonder if she was going to have a breakdown during this scene – which would have immediately cut short the chances of her coming home, something her husband clearly wants – if she’s well.

Karen, meanwhile, is having trouble forming sentences and jumps from one thought to the next, frequently leaving things hanging in the air, clearly struggling to get by. Patricia quite matter-of-factly says to Karen that her medications are probably making it hard for her to think, providing Karen with genuine compassion. It’s so odd to think that these women would have bonded while they were in, especially given that Karen’s condition is so severe that you might expect “normal” people to want to stay away from her. In fact, it’s actually rather shocking to think that both of these women are in for what is merely called “depression.” It turns out that Karen is actually Mrs Frick, who’s only there for the first time as opposed to Patricia’s third; what has gone wrong with her, you have to ask: she’s so much more broken than just “she likes to sleep all of the time and can’t go out of the house to do the shopping,” as her husband described her.

Sometime during the scene with Karen and Patricia I started to lose the sense of being in a theater and began to feel like I was actually watching real people and began to get very emotionally caught up in what was going on. Markham’s depiction of a very unwell woman was frighteningly believable, as were the petty, ridiculous fights that Hamilton and Patricia get into later in the scene. But the end, where Karen attempts to show her husband how good she’s become at dancing, just about broke me: Frick’s look of disgust at what he clearly considers his now-freakish wife had me struggling not to cry. Thank God Patricia – accused by her husband of being negative and materialistic – came to her friend’s rescue – along with her “useless” husband and his “stupid” banjo. Both of them accompany Karen through the rest of her dance routine when Frick turns his back on her, while Patricia also cues Frick on how to behave like some semblance of a decent, supportive human being – which Karen clearly, clearly needs to believe he is. And somehow, in doing this, Patricia and her husband find there sense of trust in each other. But I felt gutted for Karen. Hamilton – descendent of Alexander Hamilton – may be the last Yankee, but there’s no shortage of people like Frick who think that a person who isn’t producing maximum value – whether a person who choses carpentry over law or a wife who’s too afraid to go out and do the shopping – have lost their value and should be tossed on the scrap heap.

Miller’s play seems to me an indictment both of the overmedicalization of depression but also of the underlying pressures that cause so many women to experience bad mental health in middle age. I left feeling gutted, forced to remind myself that I was just watching actors and Markham was doing just fine, probably smoking a cigarette and having a laugh after the show. But it felt real and it hurt – a sign, I think, that Arthur Miller was fully in control of his writing during this play.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, September 7th, 2013. It continues through October 5th.)

Review – The Effect – Cottlesloe Theatre, The National Theatre

November 8, 2012

It seems presumptuous, somehow, to write a review of a play so quickly that the salt of your tears is still crackling on your face. But I wanted to get my thoughts on Lucy Prebble’s new show down while the ache is still fresh. I saw it on a day when I was extraordinarily susceptible to the emotions of love and abandonment; it took the raw emotions I provided, stuck its fist in my psyche, and pulled out my guts.

What is love, really; what is depression: what makes any of us think we are happy? Is it just really chemicals? Does life, does the way we treat each other have anything to do with it? Are we safe to say,”I’m not responsible, you own your own feelings,” or do we say,”This is all just chemicals nothing is real” so we can discount our hearts breaking inside us?

These questions come up in the context of a clinical trial involving two college kids who may or may not be getting placebos …or real drugs possibly simulating love. Or is what they’re feeling real? As they laugh and tell each other the stupid stories that make up the banal reality of whom each of us is, you, the audience member, can’t tell which is real and which is fake anymore. It’s really love. It’s just a placebo. But the emotions are strong, ridiculous, authentic, like every crush you’ve ever had, like every boy who was just too perfect and left you.

And what are we all in the end but sad depressed people trying to medicate ourselves through the harsh winter of reality. Are we lying to ourselves and just pathetic? Is it preferable take drugs to protect ourselves from the psychological damage of being honest about our ability to affect outcomes? Is it even reasonable to hope that maybe, somewhere, there is one human enough that can love us, horribly flawed though we are?

As the show ended I cried openly, trying to restrain myself from sobbing, hoping the actors could see me trying to clap through it all. I love plays that explore what it means to be in the now, in a world of cell phones and drug trials and tap dancing in mental asylums; but even more I love a play that explores what it means to be human, and to live and love and try to be ethical in the crazy world of conflicting emotions and priorities that is life with other people .

(This review is for a preview seen on Thursday, November 7th or so. It was awesome. Book now.)

Mini-review – Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Apollo Theater

August 16, 2012

What more could you want on a lovely summer’s night than to descend into a dark room full of people fighting, abusing each other, and hitting every type of drug under the sun? Does this sound like your idea of hell … or perhaps just another weekend retreat at the family cabin?

Well, if you have a life list centered on seeing all of the classics of American theater, going to A Long Day’s Journey Into Night is exactly the right plan for a summer evening, given that after spending three hours listening to people talk about fog and heroin and madness, there’s a profound relief in knowing you’ll be going out into a moist, gentle twilight. And despite having some twenty plus years of theater-going under my belt, I can’t remember even having the opportunity to watch it before. It’s no surprise, really, given its dour nature (as Carmen says in Curtains: “I put on The Ice Man Cometh and nobody cameth!”) it’s not the kind of thing to attract the after-work hordes: so I knew that when a West End revival came along, with a money cast (i.e. David Suchet, so excellent in All My Sons, hoorah!), it was time for me to go, depressive topic be damned.

I really didn’t know too much about this show before I went (something about the mom being not quite right and it being quasi-autobiographical), so there was a lot of suspense for me in watching it play out. The setting is a dreary New England summer house, circa 1910 or so: there are cars (and streetcars) and telephones, so the feeling is of pre-war near modernity, with the whisper of the Victorian era in the air. The American “stories” of “raising yourself by the bootstraps” are here, as well as an immigrant theme (so different to hear after six years of nearly-constant British theater!); there’s also the great American fault of shameful venality. These are timeless themes, but the era is fixed as one in which certain health problems cannot be cured, and certain … other problems … are not really acknowledged. This is what the play dances around: the mom (Laurie Metcalf) has not been well, but what is the cause of her illness? And why is her family worried that she will fall prey to it again?

This might be a small mystery, but it sets the stage for a tug of war between the dad (David Suchet) and his two sons, both of whom are seen as failures by their parents. The eldest is a failed actor, the pale shadow of his father’s success; the other seems to be a generally useless occasional writer (and seems like the O’Neill stand-in). As the play goes on, you can see that all three of the men seem to hate each other to the core; yet, in that repulsive way that families have, they also love each other and are tightly bound to each other. But do they hate more than they love? This leads to the ultimate mystery, as each of the men (and even mom) become more and more abusive: why to these people spend time with each other at all? Yet unlike many of the plays I’ve seen recently where I felt trapped in a party with a bunch of horrible people I couldn’t wait to escape (Ecstasy, Chicken Soup with Barley), the rifts revealed in this family were so bloody and gaping I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It reminded me of Ibsen, where the secrets in the relationships are slowly revealed to the audience’s breathless horror. Really, I just loved it, and the ending line was a diamond ripping silk. Aaaaahhhh. And we escaped.

While both of the sons seem perfect in their roles, I had some questions about both Suchet and Metcalf. First, overall, the accents: would Americans of 1910 really have sounded just like they do on TV today? I’d expect that when angry the father (James) might have slipped into a tiny bit of a brogue, but he never sounded like anything other than a clipped accent, non-determinate American: not even clearly a New Englander, or a New Yorker, but sort of a mid-Western/California type. It’s exactly how he sounded in All My Sons, but I don’t think it felt right for the era: it was David Suchet, but, well, okay, it’s David Suchet in the role of James the dad, and he was still good to watch even if he never succeeded in leaving himself behind.

Metcalf, also, seemed terribly modern despite her hair and lace cape, and was occasionally too … buttery? I guess I wanted a bit more of a Southern belle or something, a reflection in her acting of the convent in which the character had grown up. At the beginning I found her too stiff; when she was slipping, her tones were robotic; but, ultimately, as she went down the rabbit hole, she took me right with her and I wasn’t watching Laurie Metcalf, I was watching a beloved mother collapsing in front of a son who loved her dearly and was bleeding with sorrow about his inability to keep her from sliding away from him. I saw in these horrible, messed up people a universal reflection of every unhappy family, and certainly of the unhappy family I had been a part of; and I was completely bought into the play and into the text. A Long Day’s Journey it was called but when it started moving into that eternal night I could no more walk way from it then any of these people could walk away from each other. I was entranced. In the end, I agreed, this is truly a classic play, and I was glad to see it, thrilled with the truth of its writing, yet just a tiny bit grateful when its ending came. There was no release for this miserable family, but they gave me wings to soar, out into a summer twilight of quiet London streets, grateful for the life that had let me see such a great play done so well.

(This review is for a performance seen on Thursday, Ugust 9th, 2012. A Long Day’s Journey Into Night continues at the Apollo through August 18th. There are many deals available.)