I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN
Anyone who sets a play in a mental hospital has to get past the cliches of white-clad, unkempt, furiously antisocial actors yelling and pounding their fists against walls a lot, convincing us that insanity is a blisteringly precise metaphor for contemporary society. Live Theatre--which has mounted a production of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, the story of an 18-year-old schizophrenic and her therapist--seems to have understood the danger. Instead of depending on "raw" emotions onstage--as most small companies in Chicago might do--this company appreciates the power of subtlety. By backing away from a gritty reality, Live Theatre has created a work that is surprisingly truthful.
The key to this production's success is Corrina Maurio and A.C. Thomas's intelligent adaptation, coupled with Thomas's careful direction. These two artists have taken a clunky, seemingly transparent novel and, without covering up its rather heavy-handed workings, fashioned a play of delicate human emotions.
The text of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden seems entirely obvious. The main character, Deborah Blau (Maurio), is mentally ill: she has internalized the hatred she has felt in this culture as a woman and a Jew, and her parents (Donna Young and John C. Wiseman) have always denied her right to those feelings given her privileged upbringing. Deborah's therapist, Dr. Fried (Marcia Reinhard), the only nonpatient who understands the true nature of Deborah's sickness, prods, cajoles, and even scolds Deborah until she begins to see the world as it is.
Nothing in this story is surprising, and Maurio and Thomas never pretend otherwise. The obvious, necessary machinations of the plot are always placed front and center so they can be gotten out of the way quickly and efficiently. For example, the first 20 minutes of the play are almost all exposition: Dr. Fried reading Deborah's clinical history aloud, Deborah's parents explaining their daughter's troubling childhood to Dr. Fried. Even Laura Wolfinger's set design acknowledges its own obviousness: a white, completely bare room with a hyperclean tile floor, just like a mental-hospital room is supposed to look.
But director Thomas puts all this obviousness to good use by subtly working against it. For instance, when Deborah's parents talk with Dr. Fried in the second scene, they stand on the same white stage the patients stood on in the opening scene. No attempt is made to place the scene in another location by lighting it differently or piping in sound effects. Clearly the parents, who act in a broad and flat style, would never meet Dr. Fried in the middle of a deserted ward, but Thomas is alerting his audience that more is going on than meets the eye, that we shouldn't believe in the literal reality of his production.
This strategy serves his production well, because the literal reality is not only the least interesting element of the play but also the one that can distance the audience. Mental illness, especially when it is as serious and disturbing as schizophrenia, can seem freakish, can keep an audience from identifying with a character. In Thomas's production none of the patients act crazy. They may be a little eccentric--Carla (Lucinda Burkhardt) seems angry about everything, Sylvia (Jennie Isreal) hardly ever speaks, and Miss Coral (Gillian Gibson) teaches French to an imaginary class--but they are all familiar. It is a simple directorial choice, but it's effective.
Similarly, the production does not focus on the extremes of Deborah's illness, such as her self-mutilation, but on her quieter moments, as she attempts to feel and understand some of the most painful of human emotions: shame, guilt, fear, depression.
The only choice that seems curious is the presence of Deborah's schizophrenic voices, whom she calls the Yri. Three actors (Peter H. Bruckner, Carolyn Valentine, and David vanWert) embody these voices, dressed in black unitards and masks, with abundant multicolored straw hair. They are beautifully costumed by C.H. Willy, but they don't seem to have a clear relationship to Deborah: they spend much of their time gesturing enigmatically at her instead of interacting with her and affecting the choices she makes.
The Yri aside, all of the actors seem to understand exactly how this production works. Delightfully, they never overplay their roles but simply mean what they say and do. This is especially true of Burkhardt and Isreal, who seem so natural in their difficult roles that it's easy to forget they're acting.
This play doesn't always reach the emotional heights it could; these young artists are still developing their emotional range. But instead of pushing for mock emotions, they seem to know their own limitations and opt for honesty rather than flash.