Chicago Theatre Review
The Doctor is In
Good for Otto – Gift Theatre
David Rabe is a prolific American Tony Award-winning playwright, screenwriter and author, known for, among other works, his Viet Nam trilogy (“Sticks and Bones,” “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,” “Streamers”), as well as other notable plays, like “Hurlyburly” and “In the Boom Boom Room.” The much-honored writer chose to premier his latest work at Chicago’s Gift Theatre, tucked away up in Jefferson Park. Mr. Rabe became impressed with this acclaimed theatre company after working with Artistic Director Michael Patrick Thornton on some readings and fundraisers. This opportunity is an honor, not only for this talent storefront theatre, but for the Windy City, as well.
Rabe’s play, like his previous dramas, is a fictionalized view of one particular segment of life: the treatment of Americans with mental health issues. Inspired by the book, Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You, the playwright modeled his central character after its author. Dr. Robert Michaels is actually a composite of several individuals, but he’s primarily influenced by the life and work of psychiatrist Dr. Richard O’Connor, the director of the Northwest Center for Family Service and Mental Health. David Rabe spent some time observing at this Connecticut facility and has written a free flowing drama that looks at the challenges, frustrations and rewards of treating patients experiencing profound psychological issues. The resulting production is, at almost three hours, a bit lengthy and could benefit from the elimination of a few of its characters and stories. On the positive side, this play runs the gamut, swinging tragic from sadness to frighteningly shocking episodes, from gentle tenderness to unexpected humor. One thing is for sure, however: it’s never dull.
Talented actor Michael Patrick Thornton also happens to be a very wise and gifted director. In this, his fourth collaboration with David Rabe (he guided the Jeff Award-winning production of his company’s “Hurlyburly”), Thornton has the honor of bringing the playwright’s world premier to life. He’s worked with set designer Courtney O’Neill and lighting specialist Charles Cooper to draw his audience directly into this play by presenting it alley style. What that means for theatergoers is that, not only are they never more than two rows from the action, they’re seated on both sides of the stage, with the drama unfolding in the middle, just a few feet away. Ms. O’Neill has literally stuffed the tiny theatre space with additional playing areas, using every crevice and corner, high and low, as tiny stages on which the other characters either perform or simply reside between scenes. The effect is that Dr. Michaels’ patients never leave him. They’re always surrounding him. Never does he have the luxury of leaving his work at the office because all the other characters are constantly within eye- and earshot, always in his conscience. It’s a brilliant concept.
Thornton sagaciously guides his 15-member cast, one of the largest seen on the Gift stage in recent seasons. The ensemble is led by John Gawlik as Dr. Robert Michaels. Although every once in a while this actor slurs his words and becomes difficult to understand, Mr. Gawlik creates a gentle, genuinely likable psychiatrist who cares immensely about his patients. Mr. Gawlik’s chemistry with his clients is honest and, while trying to remain objective during sessions, deeply empathetic. In one of his monologues Michaels expresses a desire to take his patients home with him, so as to better address their every need. As it is, the good doctor must take out his disappointment with the system by phone, represented by Cyd Blakewell, in a finely controlled performance, as Marcy Smith-McMillan; between conversations, he vents his frustration with Denise, his hardworking receptionist, nicely played by Justine Serino. Dr. Michaels shares his practice at the clinic with Dr. Evangeline Ryder, played with cool open-mindedness by the always sincere, commanding and impressive Lynda Newton. This actress plays the consummate professional, remaining calm and neutral during all her sessions with patients, but exploding with irritation and an inability to heal her clients, soon after they’ve left the clinic. The theatergoer truly feels the hurt these two caring doctors experience.
Rabe writes an interesting character in Dr. Michaels’ deceased mother who, like O’Connor’s own parent, unexpectedly committed suicide when he was just a young boy. The beautiful and savvy actress Brittany Burch, another talented Gift Company member, plays Mom. She’s perhaps an amalgamation of Dr. Michaels’ past memories combined with what he imagines his mother’s reactions would be in various situations. Or, perhaps, she’s a ghost who’s haunting and tormenting her son as she roams the New England countryside. It’s never completely clear, but the effect is strong and harrowing, thanks to Ms. Burch’s terrific performance.
The rest of the ensemble portray patients at the clinic. Each actor creates a sincere, heartbreaking character who are difficult to forget. Young Caroline Heffernan plays 11-year-old Frannie, a preteen who the court has removed from her birth mother’s care and now lives with her foster mother, Nora Meyers, sensitively played by Darci Nalepa. Both actresses wring every ounce of truth and pain from their characters’ world and lay it at the audience’s feet. Frannie cuts herself and constantly runs away, while Nora, who hasn’t slept in days, is at her wits end. John Kelly Connolly, another of Gift’s brilliant company members, tenderly portrays Timothy, a sweet, mentally challenged man-child, whose world revolves around his pet hamster. He provides many of the laughs and tears in this production. Rob Riley is strong and confused as Barnard, an elderly gentleman hiding away from the world. His wife expresses difficulty in getting him out of bed for days at a time and she solicits help for him from the clinic. Kenny Mihlfried plays Jerome, an obsessive-compulsive hoarder whose life has stagnated. Everything he owns is stuffed inside dozens and dozens of cardboard boxes, with which he cannot bear to part. And the always excellent Jay Worthington plays Alex, a gay young man who finds that living in a small, conservative town has forced him to create a fantasy social life.
Any of these stories could be an entire play, but the cumulative effect of David Rabe’s latest drama is that, given the limitations placed upon these two doctors, their never-ending workload is simply overwhelming. The play comes across as a smart condemnation of America’s mental health system. There are no solutions or answers to the problems presented, but there’s enough ammunition here to spark hours of post-production conversations. Rabe’s play touches on topics ranging from prescription drugs, alcohol use, emotional and physical abuse, gun control and the limitations of the profession whose hands are tied by red tape and bureaucracy. With some rewriting and judicial editing, David Rabe’s play will be another strong drama that deals with health and humanity. In Michael Patrick Thornton’s exceptionally strong production, audiences will be treated to a riveting evening of impressive, truly thought-provoking theatre that they won’t soon forget.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 5-November 22 by The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-283-7071 or by going to www.thegifttheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.