Victory Gardens Theater Shows Why Laughter is the Best De-Stigmatization
Is irreverence ever appropriate when discussing mental illness?
According to Arlene Malinowski, hell yes. As part of Victory Gardens Theater's Up Close & Personal Series, Malinowski’s autobiographical solo show, A Little Bit Not Normal, recounts her descent into depression and her recovery with all-baring honesty, enormous heart, and the blackest of humor. It takes a rare talent to get so many laughs into eighty minutes while also vividly describing frustration and despair, but in a form worthy of the existentialist. That’s just what she does.
Saving Face for the Community
Malinowski’s parents didn’t allow being Deaf to get in the way of teaching their kids to be New Jersey-style klassy. And their hearing daughter, Malinowski, prided herself on being the bubbliest and most boisterous of them all. But one day, during a family event, a trip to the library’s microfilm section while investigating a family secret revealed that her grandmother had committed suicide. Upon seeing her father cry at this revelation, Malinowski declared that Grandma Josephine had been weak and selfish. Seeing the rest of the family vehemently agree confirmed to Malinowski that she should keep her own depression to herself. During a private conversation later, her mother agreed, saying it would upset the family further and reflect badly on Deaf parents.
After unsuccessfully concealing her depression from her husband, Malinowski had already come to anthropomorphize her illness as an abusive secret boyfriend. The metaphor was particularly apt due to the way her depression mainly manifested physically. She can even pinpoint the exact moment it started due to it feeling like a blow to the head and was constantly aware of it by her aching stomach. But after her initial horror at her diagnoses, the professional actress threw herself into her battle as if “depressed woman” were another role, enrolling in yoga classes, stocking up on healing crystals and shapeless cardigans, and generally doing “depressed woman” things. The novelty wore off quickly, though, as she became frustrated with the crapshoot-nature of her prescriptions, she lost the ability to focus on real people or maintain a train of thought, and the aches wouldn’t go away.
So Why Is That Funny?
Much of the show’s humor comes from how, until she was at her lowest point, Malinowski was quite self-aware about her mental illness and made ill-fated attempts to cope or compensate for it. For example, by forcing herself to be bubbly while she was seriously considering suicide, she did not make good impressions on her and her husband’s peers. Malinowski and director Lisa Portes manage these moments deftly, allowing us to share in Malinowski’s horror at her absurd situations and feeling terrible for her while also appreciating what they looked like to outsiders. Likewise, her habit of playing video games for eighteen hours at a time was clearly unhealthy, but it’s just so hard not to laugh when someone starts talking about The Sims.
The show’s opening performance was followed by a panel of mental health professionals who were interested in how the lack of sex-specific research has been a major stumbling block to finding better treatments. Besides having lived it, Malinowski is very well-informed as an advocate and has clearly come to the conclusion that the best way to erase the stigma surrounding depression is to refuse to grant it rarefied status. One of the most important lessons she learned was how much easier things would have been for her caregiving husband if there had been other people she felt she could have shared her experience with. A Little Bit Not Normal is a fascinating story about a common occurrence.
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About the Author
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.