at Too Far West Coffeehouse
Few crises can be more perverse than a child getting beaten by a parent: when kids encounter a wrong, their first impulse is to run to parents to set it right. When the protector turns into a nightmare bully, how does a new mind grapple with such betrayal? The experience unleashes the sense of an enormous gap in the world, the more agonizing because it cannot be articulated.
If you were ever beaten as a child by a person who was supposed to love you, Theater Wyrzuc's Perished will recall a ton of pain. Laceratingly honest and close to the bone, Brian G. Kirst's 90-minute play-poem graphically depicts child abuse from a child's point of view; it also describes the terrible stratagems victims employ--guilt, denial, self-hatred, heavy drinking, suicide--to free themselves of the loved one's hate. Just when the stories in Perished seem to hit rock bottom, it holds out some hard-earned hope.
To call Perished a case of theater as therapy is no dismissal; there's a need for a play by a young poet not far enough removed from the pain of abuse to gloss over it, and who uses the power of writing to heal as much as hate.
Though Perished is autobiographical, it's not a private album. Kirst opens it up by imagining a hard-drinking woman named Klair (Marian Carol) who intends to write her way out of her bad memories. Her avenging revelations are delivered by three other victims of child abuse (played by Kirst, Bart Petty, and Tina Steele) who explore almost every aspect of the problem--except, significantly, the reasons that parents abuse their kids. (That omission doesn't hurt the play--the child is unaware of any reasons at the time, and later no reason can alter the essential wrong.) Perished contains no retroactive psychotherapeutic analysis to dry it out, nor does it indulge in any cheap blame-the-victim dodges.
Instead we see how kids cope. They have bad dreams about witches in closets waiting to beat them. They agonize over what they did wrong to make mommy hurt them so bad, and to make them fear "I'll never be good enough." They resort to soap-opera fantasies or make up happy lies about their parents based on "ideal" television families. When these escapes fail, they confront their raw feelings: "When I cry he won't listen, and when I scream he won't hear."
Religion is no help, not when a minister says God takes the side of parents against disobedient children. Other children can intensify the free-floating fear; in Perished they call Kirst's gay character "fag" because he wants to be an actor and can't play football well.
The three victims resort to what they imagine are protections--heavy muscles, drugs, sex--and one has an abortion as retroactive revenge. All are attempts to find unconditional love or create unconditional fear: "Hide it by adopting the night." Always their longing for the love denied them returns to spoil the present. The poem peaks in desperation when Klair seems ready to commit suicide, then moves toward recovery, implying that the point of no return, the point at which you can't be hurt anymore, is just where the healing can begin. Eventually, Perished suggests, you may write a play to help exorcise the pain for others.
At its best that's what Perished does--possibly help a victim break the cycle of violence. That's enough reason to recommend it, despite its overlong, overwritten, and sometimes overacted outpouring. Generous to a fault, Perished tries to cover too many sides of a daunting subject and misses the chance to enact the before, during, and after of any single instance of abuse--there's too much fallout here and not enough setup.
But if the play's reach exceeds its grasp, if it sometimes gets lost in baroque imagery or resorts to crude shock effects, that's what you expect from an outcry. I'd hate to see this production tamed into a lecture-demonstration.
Kirst's staging is as fluid as his writing. The tight ensemble tear into their lines with scary spontaneity. Though they're reacting to the same trauma, Petty's character is a hardened blusterer, Steele's a tense tease, and Kirst's a messed-up "boy next door." All are well contrasted with Carol's depiction of the stricken survivor Klair.