Among the 50+ world premieres of plays by women playwrights being produced in metropolitan Washington as part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival is British playwright Clare Lizzimore’s 6-actor work, Animal.
It’s an actor’s play to be sure, full of meaty roles all around, most especially for the focal character, Rachel, played with fierce dynamism and nuance by Kate Eastwood Norris. The story of a 42-year-old woman afflicted with a mysterious psychological illness, the inciting incident for which is revealed by play’s end but unknown to the audience for most of the evening. Characterized by escalating disequilibrium, hallucinations, and a furious determination to hide the terrors of the affliction from loved ones, Rachel’s condition is indeed a real, if rare, psychosis that a few theatregoers, perhaps, have encountered in their own lives or experiences. No spoilers to follow here, though audience members will doubtless rush to the Internet to read up on the disorder once it is revealed.
It’s an actor’s play to be sure, full of meaty roles all around…
Rachel’s attentive, increasingly alarmed husband Tom is played by Cody Nickell with tender precision and a husband’s keen yearning to have his lovely, loving, and capable wife back. Tom’s wife Rachel is witty & profane, if dissociative; her disaffection with the world she finds around her flings Tom ever more into dismay even as he makes a desperate quest to help her right herself. The chemistry between Norris and Nickell, real life spouses offstage, is instantly affectionate and volatilely authentic.
The psychiatrist Stephen, to whom Rachel has been sent by her husband and—presumably—her employer, is played with gentle patience and graceful persuasion by Joel David Santner. He has seen her condition before. Santner’s impeccably groomed, carefully organized therapist is a resolute counter to his patient’s tempestuousness; the exchanges between them crackle and ricochet across the stage with an emotional weightiness that, I dare say, would be the envy of mental health clinicians hungry for a breakthrough.
Into this trio of afflicted and affected come three other characters: the husband’s elderly, frantic and frightened and no longer verbal or ambulatory mother for whom Rachel is the daily caregiver. Indeed, theatregoers of a certain age will be reminded of the many laments of second wave feminist homemakers like those in the 1970’s movie, Diary of a Mad Housewife and Carrie Snodgrass’ award-winning performance of a wife and mother at her wit’s end. Played with utter authenticity and precision by Rosemary Regan, her older woman embodies her character’s longing for soup or warmth or an early morning outing to a park. Michael Kevin Darnall plays the Pinteresque intruder Dan, all working lad swagger and brawn and sexuality, and Kate responds viscerally, if reluctantly, to the intruder’s summonings. This brazen young man alone makes sense in her dystopian world. The therapist, at one point in Rachel’s hallucinations, is replaced by a precocious young girl, played with poise and clarity by the young actress Anaïs Killian, and the plot thickens.
The plot indeed is a thick stew of references, some verbal, some visual, some inchoate and confusing, and the play advances, crisp actor moment after crisp actor moment, to a revelatory, O’Henry-like ending that lays bare the play’s conceit.
Set in a 4-sided, detached arena, with somewhat labyrinthine entry points, the seating in Studio Theatre’s ever-protean and newly-renamed Studio X space, is configured on risers around a cold black slab of stage. Set Designer Rachel Hauck has referenced well the abyss into which Rachel has fallen. Reminiscent both of the glassy volcanic rock, obsidian, and the deep blackness of space, the bare stage coolly reflects the protagonist’s otherworldly state. With sharp, effective lighting by Jesse Belsky and evocative sound design by Daniel Kluger, the world of the play hovers in mystery.
Directed with spitfire quickness and artful use of this arena setting by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, the play teases and taunts the audience to make sense of what we are seeing and hearing and gathering as fragments of backstory emerge. “Truth or illusion, George,” to quote Edward Albee’s masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Truth or illusion indeed.
The crescendo line of the play (at least for this audience member), comes compliments of accomplished Costume Designer’s Kathleen Geldard’s quintessential garb for the heroine. Therapist Stephen repeatedly has asked Norris’ Kate to take off the stocking cap she put on over her shoulder length blonde hair at the beginning of the play. “Take off your hat,” he implores her even as she delves into other, more existential terrain. But by play’s end, she removes her hat, and hope seeps in as her husband and therapist witness this small moment of breakthrough. She had been wearing the “uniform of illness” her therapist tells her—baggy pants, a weathered t-shirt, droopy sweater, old tennis shoes, and the cap of institutional despair (think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest.) And that uniform is a flesh-and-blood reality anyone who has been felled by illness or affliction or despair will recognize.
Advisory: Adult themes and language.
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.
Animal runs through October 25, 2015 at Studio Theatre’s Studio X, 1501 14th St., NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here.