Pity Delicious Nut’s poor psychiatric social worker Joseph Landsman. The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) group he runs is spiraling out of control, and insurance companies keep denying care that might place his “pass-through” patients on the road to recovery.
The quartet in his charge is a colorful group. Irene (Roxanne Fay) is a 68-year-old widow with Alzheimer’s who parades around in her slippers and a hospital gown that she has trouble keeping closed. Leon (Bob Heitman), still largely mute from shock treatments used to cure a severe depression brought on by his Argentine Nazi heritage, spouts Nietzsche in Spanish. Angela (Karleigh Chase) is a young, love-starved schizophrenic who translates for Leon when she’s not hearing voices and screaming that her leg is on fire. Rounding out the group is the volatile Chip (Drew Smith), whose family-fueled anxiety literally leaves him in fear of losing his head.
In the midst of this “controlled chaos,” Joe counsels the CBT mantra of “Mind over Mood” — writ large on the blackboard in blue chalk. Meanwhile the group session spirals into chaos as the quartet sings a rousing chorus of “Bei mir bist du schön” led by a Winnie-the-Pooh doll snatched from the classroom shelf.
Mental illness has been a credible theatrical subject starting with Shakespeare having Hamlet ponder “to be, or not to be,” all the way up to the recent, thrilling Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical, Next to Normal. Unfortunately, if we are to follow Hamlet’s advice to the players, “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature,” we’ve got to confront our human foibles and face the fact that everyone has “issues,” … even the resident therapist. As he loses control of the CBT group, Joe confronts the Kiplingesque challenge to “keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”
Ross Marks’ play, here getting its southeastern premiere, lets Joe (an intensely frazzled and funny David Warner — Full disclosure: Warner is CL’s editor-in-chief) address the audience directly. As he shares his innermost secrets and fears, he brings to mind another monologuing stage therapist, Martin Dysart in Peter Schaeffer’s landmark Equus. Marks touches on serious issues, but his treatment lacks the heft of Equus or Next to Normal and never takes the audience on a journey that leads to a cathartic peak — a theatrical punch in the gut. It’s as humorous and pleasant as one could expect from CBT group therapy, but it ultimately doesn’t add up to very much dramatically.
Bob Devin Jones’ fluid staging, however, brings out the script’s considerable humor. Each patient’s diagnosis is emblazoned in large white letters on colorful window shades hanging from the intimate Studio’s ceiling. Joe then plucks down each character’s illness as he shares their backstory with the audience. Thankfully, Jones and his actors embrace the space’s intimacy. Unlike some other intimate Bay area theatres where the actors are often “too big for the room,” Jones and his cast are not afraid to be conversational and even occasionally whisper for appropriate dramatic effect.
Warner’s quirky Joe, despite his own issues, provides a steady core around which the other actors revolve. Among the patients, the women fare better than the men. Karleigh Chase splits her personalities with aplomb, and Roxanne Fay, in particular, demonstrates a light touch as she walks a fine line between pathos and comedy. Bob Heitman, who obviously knows his stuff having spent 20 years on All My Children, is hampered, though, by an Argentine accent that just doesn’t quite ring true to life, and Drew Smith’s technique is showing when Chip’s anxiety should appear effortless. By design, this is a low-budget affair and the sets and lights (Chris Jackson & Nick Hinckley, respectively) are serviceable. However, I kept wondering if more sophisticated (though expensive) lighting would have enlivened the proceedings.
Hats off, though, to the Studio@620 for taking a risk in binging this show to Tampa Bay. The hardest task for any playwright is getting that much sought and affirming second production, the “World Premier” tag providing producers with a sexy marketing hook for the debut. Regional premieres … not so much.