All too often, it seems, the image of mental illness careens wildly between lovable eccentrics (think: Harvey) and heartless psychopaths (think: Silence of the Lambs). Like the virgin/whore dichotomy that women have had to put up with for ages, the depiction of mental illness on stage and screen has rarely occupied a middle ground closer to everyday experience.
Life for those who live largely in their minds, to the exclusion of family and friends, isn’t easy for anyone; so it is rare to find a writer who understands their struggles, and more importantly someone who understands why what we dismiss as fantasy worlds might appear perfectly normal, even preferable, to those who live with them. One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with any mental illness is the fact that what on the outside looks like a disorder is, from the patient’s perspective, the way they live, the only way to live. It’s the only world they know, and the prospect of being wrenched out of it for any reason makes little sense at first.
It’s funny, touching, and well worth seeing.
Johnna Adams’ latest play, World Builders, offers us one of the most touching portraits of mental illness I have ever seen. It helps that she writes with a generous sense of humor, too; the lessons here are delivered with ease, and it is a joy to get to know her characters. Set in a psychiatric wing of Johns Hopkins Hospital in nearby Baltimore, World Builders features two patients who have been, shall we say, invited (under some compulsion) to participate in a drug trial. They live in worlds of their own spontaneous creation, worlds so compelling it is impossible for them to cope with the rigors of normal life. If the drugs work, those worlds will disappear; but if they do work, how do they handle the loss, the death of the worlds they have lived with for so long?
Of the two patients one, Whitney is the more talkative and outgoing; the charismatic Brenna Palughi dives into Whitney’s worlds with relish, and the fantasy Whitney has created for herself is as vivid as anything you’re likely to find in that place we call reality. Max on the other hand is withdrawn, and as he slowly opens up we get a glimpse into his private world we can easily see why he has preferred silence for so long. Chris Thorn’s turn in this role is memorable and touching, especially as it becomes clear that Max has far deeper issues with his world than Whitney does with hers.
As the action unfolds and the two move from barely tolerating each other’s presence, to sharing stories, to full-fledged affection, the worlds that the drug trial is designed to destroy take on a very different meaning. Both know that their families want them to change; and now, looming in the background of their worlds, is the potential for a new third world that the two can build together.
Nicole A. Watson has created a fine piece of chamber theater, a two-hander that manages to encompass so much about the lives and dreams of people who live with mental disorders. Robert Klingelhoefer’s set is appropriately clinical, with those all-too-familiar linoleum squares in drab colors, stupid and utterly useless fake plants, bland ceiling panels and even blander furnishings, with the drug trolley always nearby. Sound designer Arshan Gailus provides delicate musical accompaniment for each scene, sparse pieces for solo piano that brilliantly complement the state of the characters’ minds onstage. Tony Galaska’s lights, meanwhile, balance the reality of the present-day waiting room with the worlds into which Max and Whitney retreat.
Adams writes with wit and sensitivity here, and creates a world in which we can grasp, as if for the first time, the challenges that many of our friends and family face with mental illness. It’s funny, touching, and well worth seeing.
Advisory: Adult situations.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
World Builders runs through August 2 at the Studio 112 space at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
For tickets call 800-999-CATF (2283), or 304-876-3474, or click here.