Mental illness as woman: It's a trope that keeps on giving. From Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire) to Bertha Mason (Jane Eyre) to Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard) and beyond, writers have used female characters to embody the myriad manifestations of mangled synapses and misfiring neurotransmitters.
With their new musical Tru, David Gosz and Leo Fotos add a new one to the pantheon. Born six years ago when both men were teenagers struggling, Tru follows a young teacher wrestling with several mental health issues personified by Her, a young woman who repeatedly attempts to seduce him into cocooned isolation. Her tries to keep Truman from going to work, meeting friends and—as depression does with such cruel efficacy—from getting out of bed in the first place.
Gosz, 23, and Fotos, 24, grew up in Western Springs and Downers Grove, respectively. Both are candid about their own mental health struggles, and how they informed Tru.
"It's like an object that weighs me down," Gosz says of the panic and anxiety disorders he lives with. "It's suffocating. Having a panic attack is like someone sitting on my chest with their hands around my throat."
For Fotos, anxiety issues escalated after he graduated from Downers Grove North High School and was accepted at Boston's ultracompetitive, highly prestigious Berklee College of Music. "It was everything I'd ever wanted. I was so excited—like, now I'm going to learn how to actually write this musical. But my anxiety got so bad I ended up leaving after five weeks," Fotos says.
That didn't stop the creation process for Tru, which continued while Gosz earned his BA in economics from the University of Chicago and Fotos launched a career teaching piano and guitar. Like Fotos, Truman is a teacher. Like Gosz, Truman experiences anxiety that feels like a strangulation. As one of Truman's lyrics puts it: "She'd rest her head atop my chest, then strangle me in her caress."
So why make mental illness a young woman? Why not a man? Or a character at any other point on the gender spectrum? The answer lies in Truman's character.
"Part of Truman's story is that his mother had mental illness—which she called Him," Gosz says, adding, "We didn't want Tru's experience to completely mirror his mother's, but we wanted to show the connection. So we made Tru's mental illness Her."
"Truman and Her—it's this toxic relationship," Fotos notes. "For me, one of the really hard things about [mental illness] is that it isn't always all bad. Like some toxic relationships aren't completely bad. Mental illness can be seductive that way. I think that keeps some people going without treatment," he says.
"Mental illness can be seductive and manipulative," Gosz adds. "It's so tempting when your bed is calling you, telling you the world won't miss you if you never leave it."
They sought out the National Alliance on Mental Illness for feedback on the musical. Kimberly Knake, executive director of NAMI's metro suburban chapter, called the show "lyrical, impactful, and able to appeal to a larger audience." When the show premiered alongside other new musicals at the 2018 Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, it was awarded "best music" and "best choreography" honors. Fotos and Gosz also solicited input from earlier staged readings.
"One of the things we heard was that no one will want to see a show that's a downer. We've worked for six years to end on a hopeful note," Fotos says.
"We want our audiences to leave with hope," concurs Gosz. "First and foremost, we want them to leave thinking about their own experiences with mental illness. If they don't have those experiences, we want them to leave with better understanding and compassion for people who do." v
For resources and information dealing with mental illness, go to NAMI.org. Local resources are also available at the Chicago-based Rebecca's Dream Foundation, rebeccasdream.org, and at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance at dbsalliance.org. Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described "Her" as "wearing a slip" and "underdressed." We regret the error.