I like to read these plays in advance, so I have some idea of what to expect. I don't always do that with fully-staged plays, but with readings I like to study up. When I read "Animal" a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't terribly impressed. There was some good writing, but the interplay of the characters didn't really come across to me. So my expectations weren't too high.
But really, within the first couple of scenes, I was riveted. These actors were able to convey so much more about the characters and the play than my (admittedly somewhat cursory) reading had done.
Quick SummaryRachel (played quite brilliantly by Jessma Evans) is a young woman in trouble. She is seeing a psychiatrist at her husband's behest, but clearly she does not want to be there. As the play progresses, we watch Rachel's home life spiraling out of control, while we struggle (along with her) to get a grip on what's happening, who the people in her life are (or who they seem to be).
This is a difficult play on a difficult subject: mental illness. The reading was followed by a really good talk-back session that touched on aspects of both the play and mental illness in general, as well as connections with Shotgun's current full production of "The Village Bike," to which it makes an interesting companion.
Mental Illness on StageIn the course of the talk-back discussion, it occurred to me that there are really two truly difficult aspects of portraying a story of mental illness on stage. The first is actually conveying the nature of the illness, which is almost by definition impossible to describe. The ill person is almost by definition an unreliable narrator, so the playwright needs to concoct scenes and characters which are both believable and evocative of the illness, and in this I think Lizzimore succeeds quite brilliantly. The cleverness of the writing is really enhanced by having faces, bodies, and voices attached to the words, and the audience finds itself taking the disquieting, disorienting journey with the main character.
The second key challenge is coming to some kind of resolution (or not) at the end. Although the play ends on a decidedly upbeat note, there is still a lot unresolved, and some truly pregnant words from the therapist that tinge the hopeful elements with a realization that there is no sure, clean answer.
All told, it's a very powerful, honest portrayal of this very difficult subject. Some of the scenes are very painful to watch, but as the audience attested in talk-back, there were elements almost anyone, especially a parent, could relate to.
Strength of a ReadingAmong the other topics discussed were the difficulties and benefits of a staged reading such as this. As someone pointed out, there has to be a lot of trust within the cast and crew, as they don't have a lot of time to get comfortable or to establish routines. Indeed, they have to make discoveries even as they perform. And there has to be a lot of trust with the audience, too, as they have to fill in some of the elements that in a full production would be handled with music, lights, or blocking.
But with all that, there is also the freshness of discovery, of having to commit to your first impulses, and not being able to fall back on habit or routine. Cast and audience get to discover a lot as they charge in together, which makes the performance even more intimate that a regular play.
Those are the things that inspired us to sponsor this reading series, and this reading really delivered. If you can make it to closing night tomorrow (Tuesday), I would highly recommend it.
I won't go into the comparisons with "The Village Bike" here, because I don't think I can do so without a whole lot of spoilers. Suffice it to say that if you've seen "Bike," you'll see lots of interesting points of interaction. And if you haven't, perhaps this will inspire you to see it: It's a good pairing.
Two thumbs up, as those movie guys used to say.