Artemesia Theatre Gives Families Dealing with Mental Illness a Voice
There’s a point in Visiting where the main character, Penny (Sarah Wisterman), declares that simply being able to speak openly about her and her relatives’ bipolar disorder is an enormous help to her.
The amount of value a viewer of Artemisia’s world premiere of Ed Proudfoot’s play gets from it likely depends on how true this is for them personally. Proudfoot does not flinch away from describing exactly what kinds of struggles people with mental illness and those close to them face on a daily basis and over the long haul. The play, which uses minimal scenery or other theatrical devices, is centered on an extended conversation among the female members of one family and how they love, support, enable, and inadvertently or otherwise harm each other.
We open with a scene of confusion, as Penny goes missing in a hospital and makes her way to the roof with the intention of harming herself. Her relatives talk her down and she undergoes electroconvulsive therapy, but a side-effect is that she suffers memory damage.
In an effort to bring her back to herself, her mother, Lauren (Julie Proudfoot), Lauren’s sisters Rachel (Millie Hurley) and Holly (Carin Silkaitis), and their sister-in-law, Carol (Maggie Cain), take her to the rest stop where they celebrated Penny’s twenty-sixth birthday a month earlier, as well as her eighteenth birthday. Their thinking seems to be that the less-than-pleasant way in which the events transpired should make them all the more memorable, and through the flash-backs, we learn why Penny was in crisis at the play’s start.
Characters Collide while Visiting
Visiting is two hours long, and early on, Proudfoot’s dialogue feels a bit like a checklist of things that should be said to a person with a mental illness and things that should not be said. However, he does find a rhythm as the central conversation progresses and the characters’ relationships become clearer. In the meantime, the dedicated work of the five actresses and director Carrie Lee Patterson keeps the play afloat. Wisterman, in particular, is responsible for starting the play off on an extreme note which gives us insight into how Penny perceives the world when she is at her worst, and then comes back down to display a character who is loving and clever when she is at her best. We know that she has moved on and learned from the pressures she was under at the age of eighteen, but also that her new travails share much in common with her old ones.
As the story unfolds we feel mired in their relationships with each other, as they are. Without meaning to be cruel, the older women pull Penny in different directions out of a belief that each is doing the best thing for her. It seems at times that guilt is the only thing causing these women to remain in contact. Whether they’re a positive influence on each other is ambiguous even to themselves, but each other is all they’ve got. The actresses verbally and physically respond to everything as if they really have been sniping at each other for years over everything from the culpability of people with depression to how to make a proper potato salad, often in the same sentence.
Affirming Life Through Honesty
Though the time-shifts between various picnics are not always clear, we do get a firm idea of how the womens’ lives are endlessly tangled up in each other. Many of the things which get said are severe—one character has become so fatigued from a lifetime worrying another will commit suicide that she no longer cares; it is difficult for a person who has gone through several rounds of crises to maintain any confidence in the mental health field; well-intended comfort is often useless and actually an additional burden– to name just a few.
Perhaps one of the primary values of this play is that it could allow members of families in the audience to understand each other without having to live out identical confrontations. Another value is that, by fully acknowledging the difficulties mental illness causes, Visiting actually earns the right to call its ending life-affirming. It’s not simplistic and we don’t get the feeling that it’s a happily-ever-after, but it does show that mentally ill people have a lot to live for and can enrich the lives of others.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre of Chicago.
April 14-May 7
Thursdays 7:30 pm
Fridays 7:30 pm
Saturdays 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm
Sundays 6:00 pm
The Edge Theater
5451 N Broadway, Chicago
Photos: Kat Tushim
Group tickets are available.
To order, visit ArtemisiaTheatre.org or call 312-725-3780.
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.