Chicago Theatre Review
A Picnic with Poignancy
Visiting – Artemisia Theatre
In Ed Proudfoot’s latest drama, following on the footsteps of this company’s acclaimed 2016 production of “Chewing on Beckett,” the playwright tackles the effects of bipolar disorder on several generations of women. It’s a raw, gutsy couple of hours in the company of one particular family. Penny is a young woman suffering from manic depression. Her mother, Lauren, Aunts Rachel, Holly and Carol, her uncle’s deeply caring wife, are all part the teenager’s support team. For audiences, it’s an evening spent on an emotional rollercoaster with these five women, for whom the genetic proclivity toward bipolar disorder is extremely high. The overall effect is like a punch to the stomach.
As the play opens on Eric Luchen’s expressionistic set, Penny has escaped the care of her hospital orderly and is headed toward the rooftop. Bent on suicide, the 18-year-old is at once comforted by Lauren, her sensitive mother, and a woman who fully understands and empathizes with her daughter. You see, Lauren also suffers from bipolar disorder and has attempted taking her own life several times. Seemingly, more than all the diagnoses, medical testing and prescribed drugs, it’s Lauren’s closely-knit family who’s kept her on track. Now it’s Lauren’s turn to do whatever she can to help Penny, her vulnerable daughter, whom she’s cared for through good times and bad.
The scene shifts to a park, on an unseasonably warm December day, during which grown sisters Holly and Rachel and sister-in-law Carol are meeting Lauren and Penny for a goodwill visit. It’s a time for celebration because Penny seems to have cleared another hurdle in her journey toward managing her depression. Despite severe mood swings Penny still continues to exhibit, the women support and help bring her to a point where she can cope. However, mixed into this story of mania and depression, the sisters share their own personal sagas. Relationships have, apparently, always been tense or strained and Lauren, Rachel and Holly have much to iron out before they can live happily ever after. Or is that even possible, given their diagnoses? There’s a long line bipolar disorder in this family. In addition, the thought of possibly bringing another child into the world is dangerous and risky.
Directed with a poetic grace and just the right amount of grit, urgency and realism, Carrie Lee Patterson allows this play to breathe and expand. Featured in Artemisia’s 2015 Fall Festival of staged readings, this highly regarded drama won the accolades of audiences, enough to prompt the script to become a full production. Lit by Rebecca A. Barrett, with a nice balance of illumination, shadow and special effects, and seasoned with a tension-filled sound design by Kallie Rolison, Patterson’s production rages, roars and ultimately takes wing.
This exceptional cast is led by Sarah Wisterman, whose work has been enjoyed all over Chicagoland. As Penny this young actress carries the show on her tiny shoulders. She’s fierce and feisty one minute, displaying the symptoms of hypomania, experiencing mood wings mixed with bursts of unbridled energy. The next moment Penny is vulnerable and hurting, thoughts racing, speaking in a rapid, uninterrupted manner. The compassionate theatergoer will simply want to hold, comfort and protect this young girl, but we know she requires far more. Wisterman embodies all that is Penny, and we share her emotional odyssey throughout this deeply moving play, thanks to the work of a very talented actress.
As Lauren, artistic director Julie Proudfoot continually maintains a cool, composed front for her family, all the while seething with pain and confusion within. Her heart tells Lauren how she should behave, as a loving, caring mother; but deep down there’s a never-ending sadness, an anger and irritability, coupled with a gnawing frustration regarding the family’s future. For Lauren, suicide has been contemplated and attempted, more than once, and it’s looming its ugly head, once more. When Lauren finally snaps, she surprises the audience as she spews guilt and venom at those who love her most.
Holly, portrayed by the excellent Carin Silkaitis, is tough and merciless. Addicted to alcohol, as well as her own meds, Holly is a lesbian nestled in a solid relationship. The two have been discussing having a child, but the understandable red flags raised by her sisters about the possibility of passing the gene to an offspring agitate. Holly will not be told what to do by anyone, and she views these cautionary warnings as an expression of prejudice. The bile that Holly eventually unleashes upon her sisters has been building up for years. Ms. Silkaitis, whose magnificent talent was recently applauded in her one-woman show, “I Do Today,” will undoubtedly be remembered, come award season.
Millie Hurley has been a respected fixture all over Chicago. Recently wowing audiences as E.M. Ashford, in “Wit,” as well as playing a touching Mrs. Garland, in “Good for Otto,” Ms. Hurley is one of the area’s finest character women. As Rachel, the older sister with her own difficulties and ailments, Hurley becomes the voice of reason. She tries hard to keep the peace and persuade her sisters and her niece to make the right decisions. But old wounds reopen and no amount of liquor or potato salad can assuage her.
Maggie Cain, plays Carol, whose acting range spans jolly Mrs. Claus in “Barney the Elf” and Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie.” She’s related to the others by marriage and, as such, is somewhat of an outsider. Carol has given her life to Jesus and allows her religious beliefs to rule her every moment. She often tries to impose her faith on those around her, but she usually finds her help unappreciated. Carol, as portrayed by Cain, isn’t suffering from bipolar disorder, but she’s very detail-oriented. She may be touched with her own affliction, perhaps obsessive-compulsive disorder. Combined and contrasted with the other women’s emotional problems, Carol brings a note of humor to this poignant picnic.
The goal of this remarkably capable and sincere theatrical company is to produce plays that empower women. The group is always on the look for new works or classics that can be presented with a definite feminine point of view. With Ed Proudfoot’s latest drama, Artemisia has once again achieved their mission. Here, the company has put names and faces to a disease that afflicts so many around the world. Audiences may find entertainment in the lighter moments of this moving drama; but it’s the playwright’s unflinching look at bipolar disorder, all its symptoms and treatments, and how it affects everyone around, that makes this powerful piece a startling, striking evening of theatre.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 14-May 7 by Artemisia Theatre at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-725-3780 or by going to www.ArtemisiaTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.