Painfully funny

This look at a woman's schizophrenia brilliantly mixes the comic and tragic

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There are several reasons why you should see Woman in Mind, but perhaps the best of them is actress Ami Sallee Corley's virtuoso performance. Corley plays Susan, the mentally deteriorating protagonist of Alan Ayckbourn's dark comedy, and she's funny, frightening, emotionally convincing, unpredictable, pathetic and remarkably charming.

Torn between two worlds — one genuine and intolerable, the other delightful but false — Corley's Susan wins our hearts after only a few minutes, leaving us to almost wish her more moments of madness, since it's only when she's off her head that she thinks she's surrounded by loving and compassionate human beings.

I've been reviewing Corley for years at Jobsite Theater and American Stage, but it was only two years ago, when she had a lead part in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, that I began to think of her as one of this area's top performers. With Woman in Mind, she shows that Frankie was no fluke: The actress not only knows how to inhabit a part, but how to broaden it with contradictions, a wealth of feelings, hues and colors far transcending what's merely in the text.

Brilliantly directed by David M. Jenkins, Corley's Susan deserves a place along with such mentally threatened characters as Arthur Miller's Willy Loman and Pirandello's Enrico IV, sufferers for whom the line between the real and the fantastical is perilously close to vanishing.

And Ayckbourn's not so loyal to comedy that he doesn't show us the harrowing, ultra-serious side to Susan's collapse. There are moments in Woman in Mind when all laughter freezes, and we're confronted by a haywire world that's nothing short of horrific. Schizophrenia, we suspect, must be something like this: Things become their opposites; all sense of character dissolves. Thanks to Corley's outstanding performance, we leave Woman in Mind not sure that, all our amusement notwithstanding, what we've just witnessed isn't better characterized as tragic.

When we first meet Susan, she's lying knocked-out in her garden as a Dr. Windsor does his best to revive her and determine her condition. It seems she stepped on a garden rake and was hit on the head by the long handle. Now she has trouble understanding the good doctor's words and can't hear the howling dog that the doctor insists is making a racket just next door.

Susan's affectionate husband Andy comes out to see her, as do her younger brother Tony and cheerful daughter Lucy. Romantic Andy tries to comfort her by saying how much the whole family needs her, and though Susan is still a little unsure on her feet, we're at least comforted to know that she's a much-loved wife and mother.

Or is she? Only moments after we've seen Andy and the others, Dr. Windsor insists that Susan's husband's name is really Gerald, that someone called Muriel just brought her tea and that Andy and company don't exist. Susan's sure that Windsor is wrong — until who should appear but wretched Gerald, in a minister's collar, and Muriel, the mousy, mean-spirited live-in sister-in-law who nearly poisons the unhappy couple every day with her cooking.

Susan, it seems, has two families — or at least thinks she does — and will spend the next two acts trying to figure which is real and which deserves her allegiance, real or not. Her choice would seem to be easier insofar as she has little but contempt for Gerald, despises Muriel and is none too happy with their son Rick, who's gone off to join an obscure religious cult for which he's taken a vow of silence.

But is the alternative feasible? Can she depend on Andy and Lucy and Tony not to disappear like mirages just when she needs them most? And what happens when the dual realities start to merge, and one family won't have the decency to stay separate from its counterpart?

The reason Susan's quandary isn't just a well-written case history is that we all know what it's like to imagine a better life, we all have somewhere in our subconscious a model — or myth — of what our days and nights on earth might be. Watching Susan waver between two possibilities, we're torn between our worry for her sanity and our concern for her happiness. What if she can't have both at the same time?

And the actors who dance on the two horns of this duality do their utmost to make Susan's choices especially vivid. On the bright side, there's the fine Steve Garland as Andy, as caring and sincere a husband as any wife ever dreamed of (and dreaming may be precisely what's involved). The luminous Caitlin McDonald is the perfect daughter Lucy, and impressive Matt Lunsford is the good-natured younger brother who wants only a life in the sunshine for his dear Susan.

Then there's the other group: Jason Vaughan Evans as the clueless, dry-as-dust vicar whose marriage with Susan is both loveless and sexless (Evans can be hilarious in his know-nothing stubbornness); Kari Goetz as resentful, bitter Muriel, who works nightly to convince her late husband to show her a sign; and Stephen Ray as son Rick, whose visit home offers one disappointment after the next.

Holding out a slight hope for human decency is the talented Shawn Paonessa as Doctor Windsor — but beware, even M.D.s have their unreality.

Jenkins' backyard set is attractive and solid — nothing imaginary about that fence and lawn furniture — and Katrina Stevenson's costumes are, as usual, tip-top.

Not all the British accents are as convincing as could be — Evans never masters his, and Paonessa's falters in the second act — but Corley's is spot-on, as are McDonald's and Lunsford's. And everybody contributes to the laugh-out-loud comedy that puts Susan's mental agony into such sharp relief.

In fact, some of the scenes between Susan, Gerald and Muriel are as funny as anything I've seen on stage in months. If you think the comedy of manners is an antique, just watch the tense members of this ménage try to speak without upsetting one another.

And watch Ami Sallee Corley. She's evolved over the years into one of the brightest stars in our local theatrical firmament. Woman in Mind gives her the opportunity to shine, and she does.

I can't wait to discover what other surprises she has in store.

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