Woman in Mind: Who am I? Why am I here?

barkerpicPlaywright Alan Ayckbourn, prolific British author most well known for Absurd Person Singular and the trilogy The Norman Conquests, has a fascination for witty characters who feel they are missing out on something and are driven more or less crazy by that realization, something like Noël Coward for the looney bin.

Comic farce about mental illness is risky. It is hilarious schadenfreude when Wile E. Coyote rushes off a high precipice and plummets from a great height to a presumably unpleasant landing far below, but that sort of comedy does not translate well to the live stage. At some point, everyone stops laughing.

We meet the titular Woman in Mind, protagonist Susan (Becky Minard), lying on the ground after having been accidentally conked on the head into unconsciousness by a garden rake. She is being attended by Bill Windsor (Paul Kandarian), a local country doctor who has been called to the scene. Unlike Ayckbourn’s usual ensemble structure, Susan never leaves the stage, and from first to last the audience sees and hears what Susan sees and hears.

Susan’s sense of identity is unhinged by the blow, and at first she thinks the doctor is speaking gibberish – our first clue that we as the audience are seeing everything from her point of view – but as she comes around, she starts hearing the doctor speak English and starts responding to her name. Her concerned and doting husband Andy (Dennis L. Bouchard) comes to take care of her, as do her brother Tony (Steven Vessella) and daughter Lucy (Lauren Faith Odenwalder) still dressed in whites from their tennis game.

Except that Andy, Tony and Lucy are only hallucinations in Susan’s mind. Soon we meet Susan’s real husband Gerald (David Adams Murphy), an Anglican vicar who is devoted less to his wife than to the true love of his life, a book he has been writing for years about the history of the parish since 1386. Gerald’s sister Muriel (Elizabeth Messier) has also been living with them since the presumably long ago death of her husband whom she keeps trying to contact through spiritualism. Their son Rick (Tom Lavallee) turns up, having spent several years away in a religious cult that forbade him from speaking with his parents.

Susan’s real family are dreadful people, and director Joan Dillenback skillfully signals the contrast between their dimly lit drab clothes as opposed to the brightly lit colorful clothes worn by the imaginary family. At first Susan’s imaginary family seems the polar opposites of her real family: appreciative and eager to please with free-flowing champagne and engaged in genteel upper-class pursuits with oodles of time on their hands to pay attention to her. As things progress, the imaginary family is less within Susan’s willful control and starts incorporating elements leaking in from real life. Eventually the doctor and Susan’s real family begin acting so strangely that she – and the audience – suspect they are part of her hallucinations and cannot be sure what, if anything, is real.

It’s a difficult play to carry off, especially because the comic pacing is very British and this is often a challenge for American actors who, at their worst, can come across like good ol’ boys from Alabama doing Monty Python. Fortunately, this cast gets it right and, mercifully, does not attempt British accents even when Tony shows up outfitted in huntsman’s tweed with a shooting stick. Becky Minard as Susan, described by the program as having only recently returned to theater after a hiatus since the early 1980s, is very impressive in a make-or-break role that offers her no respite.

Stanislavski famously said that every actor should ask himself certain questions when approaching a role (as in this formulation by Andre Gregory): “Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from, and where am I going?” These questions apply equally well to Susan, a character who has become dissociated from her play – and to the audience.

Woman in Mind, The Players, Barker Playhouse, 400 Benefit St, Providence, RI 02903, playersri.org/the-plays

Fri-Sat (2/7, 2/8) 8:00pm, Sun (2/9) 2:00pm. About 2 hours in two acts with an intermission. Not appropriate for young children.

Tickets: 401-273-0590 Mon-Fri 10am-2pm or e-mail theplayers1909@aol.com

Alan Ayckbourn’s official web site: womaninmind.alanayckbourn.net/

The Players announced that they dedicate this production in memory of Lydia K. Matteson, who passed away unexpectedly on December 21, 2013, after having been a member for over 40 years and participated in more than 50 shows, as well as serving as president from 1994 to 1996 and as office manager from 1997 until her death.

 

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