By Leigh Austin
There are far too many sensitive topics that Americans, as a society, feel uncomfortable acknowledging and discussing: subjects like racial discrimination, gun control, and, as Robin Williams’ death reminded us in 2014, mental illness.
In its world premiere presentation of Ed Proudfoot’s Visiting, Artemesia seeks to open up a conversation about this taboo topic, one which affects one in five Americans annually (according to research conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2015), but the play’s scattered script adds so many dramatic elements on top of its main characters’ struggles that it’s hard to maintain focus. Ultimately, the twist and turns seemed to shift attention away from rethinking the way we speak about and treat these disorders.
The plot follows a family plagued by mental issues; with a now deceased grandmother known primarily for her intense depression and a mother recovering from her latest suicide attempt, the main character Penny (Sarah Wisterman) worries that her biology has pre determined her fate, one characterized by manic episodes. As she grows into a young adult, her own battle with bipolar disorder makes the everyday challenging, not to mention the trials that come with applying for college and leaving home. Her well-meaning family members try to comfort her, but their efforts leave Penny contemplating whether their mentally unstable lineage, her lineage, is worth carrying on.
Jumping between Penny’s electroshock therapy treatments at age 26, her discovery of her true genealogy at age 18, and her family birthday gatherings at the two respective ages, the script seems to be attempting to jar its audience, perhaps emulating the treatment or Penny’s internal experiences. Yet this ends up generating confusion (I struggled to follow, and a friend in attendance with me thought that all of the events were Penny’s imaginings), and I could not help but feel that the extreme events in the play portrayed mental illness as a distant, unrecognizable disorder as opposed to one that we encounter every day in others and/or in ourselves.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that mental illness as severe as the fictitious Penny’s doesn’t exist; I’m merely questioning whether trying to tackle so many topics proves effective. Throughout the course of the play, the family fires back and forth at each other, arguing about heavy subjects like religion, reproducing with mental illness, what makes life worth living, in such rapid succession that we have no time to truly consider any of these ideas fully. Going into the show, I expected to leave that theatre feeling as if the play had propelled the audience to take action in some way, even if it’s in just being able to be open about one’s own mental struggles. Yet the play offered no chance for deeper contemplation, leaving me feeling disoriented.
The script’s shortcomings were in many ways overcome by the talented group of women onstage. Carin Silkaitis, in a role that easily could come across as a stock character, commands the stage as Penny’s aunt “Holly,” bringing humor, heart and much-appreciated subtlely (due to the script’s love for drama) to her performance. Millie Hurley’s tame performance as Penny’s older aunt “Rachel” acts as a nice counterpart to Silkaitis’ characters’ exuberance, and Wisterman’s Penny allows us to feel some of the terror, sadness, and fear that her character experiences.
Overall, the five female performers do a solid job of connecting and generating seemingly real relationships in a script burgeoned with dramatic twists and turns.
Visiting continues through May 7th at the Edge Theater.