Fulton Theatre presents Next to Normal (2019)

I feel so glad and so lucky that I found a charming little theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and this play to attend. It was a phenomenal performance and experience all around. This is the best part of traveling: finding gems like this.

First of all, the space and background: let me set the stage, if you will. The Fulton Theatre is a grand, historic old opera house, of a certain type. The main theatre space is opulent, extravagant: ornate carvings, gilt, red velvet. My date and I snuck in to see this space after our play was over; but Next to Normal was performed upstairs, in the “studio.” It reminded me very much of the iDiOm/Sylvia, with spare furnishings and rows of chairs set up on the floor for the audience. I was a little disappointed not to see the big grand theatre in action, of course, but I admit seeing this smaller, simpler space was a comfort, because it reminded me of another theatre I’ve really appreciated (I’m still remembering Clown Bar fondly).

the lovely Fulton Opera House (photo credit)

So, a small space, unassuming, and with moderately minimal props and backdrop, and a small cast of just six. I have seen a larger cast play in small space – Clown Bar was one of those exceptions – but generally a smaller space does mean fewer players. They did indulge in costume changes, though.

Now on to the play, itself.

Next to Normal was written by Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music), and I appreciate it very much as a play, to begin with. The topics it deals with are not small undertakings. Family dysfunction and severe mental illness are difficult to approach in any art form, I think. Here we have a mother, Diane, who is ill – how ill becomes gradually clear, but she clearly struggles to get out of bed and deal with her daily life within the home, let alone outside it. Her husband, Dan, means well, but he’s ill-equipped to help his wife with her outsized problems. There are two children who are affected in different ways. And there’s a big reveal part-way through, which I won’t spoil for you here, but it’s important.

Did I mention yet that this play was a musical? A rock musical, that is. It sounded weird coming in (doesn’t it sound weird?) – a rock musical about mental illness and family dysfunction.

The high-school-aged daughter gets her first boyfriend, and Diane has a psychiatrist, and then another (both played by the same actor); and that’s the whole cast: mom, dad, two kids, boyfriend, psych. In two acts, Diane gets sicker. She is prescribed lots of drugs; she experiences hallucinations; she attempts to kill herself; she is hospitalized, and undergoes electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The nuclear family learns some things about themselves individually, about each other, and about how they work together. The ending is surprisingly hopeful, but feels earned.

My one real concern that I want to voice is something that often concerns me in conversations about mental illness. There seem to be two well-intentioned stories we tell ourselves/each other: that it’s okay to take drugs, to get the help one needs; and that one is stronger if one can be okay without drugs. I think it’s tricky to navigate these two messages, either one of which can be potentially damaging. On the one hand, there’s an argument that we’re too pill-happy in this culture, and that we start our kids on drugs too young. On the other hand, the feeling that you’re stronger if you can “do it” without drugs is really problematic for those people who suffer from conditions that require medication, as some do. The narrative of this play came down a little bit on the side of praising and admiring the drug-free path. And if that works for the fictional Diane, of course I am so happy for her. But that kind of praise can be discouraging, even damaging, for patients who need drugs to be okay. I just wanted to voice that because it occurred to me as I watched the play unfold. And as I’m writing this, I guess I need to observe how personal this material felt. Without violating anyone’s privacy, I thought of some loved ones who have struggled or are currently struggling in ways I recognized here. It was sobering and hard to watch, of course, but it also felt good to have certain people seen. Art is powerful. I’m glad that art addresses such topics as these – even the really hard ones – because the hardest parts of life deserve to have this light shined upon them.

Also, can we talk about the extraordinary image, above? Click through to the larger version. That woman with her blurred-out face, the suburban ideal in her torso, and the pills spilling out from her lower extremities. The sense of time passing all around her. That’s an ideal of accompanying art.

Even with this serious and disturbing material, Next to Normal is remarkably also very funny, and so heartwarming, even through the challenges. And played by such gifted actors – I could feel their passion and power. I paused to admire, at intermission, how odd it is that I can be simultaneously aware that this is “just” a play, and also so invested in these characters who are fiction, and I know that, and yet they make me laugh and cry, and I just want for Diane to be okay and for her daughter Natalie to feel loved and to know it’s okay, she doesn’t have to be perfect to make up for everything… I want Dan to know it’s not his job to fix his wife. Gosh, but I love the theatre.

The thing that was most surprising and impressive about this play I’ve saved for last. Listen to this: the actor who played Dan was unavailable at the last minute, and so they called upon an actor with twenty-four hours’ notice to step in. Jeffrey Coon did not have time to learn his lines; he played the role with a bound script in one hand, flipping through its pages as he went. But he knew the scenes! And he knew the music! He played the physical role perfectly, including interactions with other actors; he knew his blocking. And recall this is a musical: when he glanced down at that playbook for his lines, he was often not speaking but singing them. He knew the songs, musically, just needed the words as he went. Because Dan is some kind of businessman, often carrying a briefcase, he was able to make that bound script often serve as a prop, so that it sometimes disappeared and we could forget about it altogether. I have NEVER seen this before. And I cannot imagine it’s ever done this well: Coon’s acting as Dan was superb, spot-on emotionally and in key with his fellow players. His singing was impressive – great voice, but also timing and feeling. I cannot communicate here how impressed I was with this performance. I didn’t know it could work this well. I can only assume this guy (who works for the Fulton as his day job as well) is a professional ideal. My admiration for this art form has just been raised another ten notches, watching this man slide into this slot so smoothly. During final curtain calls, the other actors made a point to celebrate him, too, so that I could see they shared my feelings about his incredible performance.

I feel again like the luckiest woman alive, when I get to travel through a small city and find a shining experience like this one. I’m going to treasure Next to Normal, the Fulton Theatre, and Jeffrey Coon’s performance for some time.


Rating: 9 pills.

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet by Kim Adrian

A remarkable memoir, organized as a glossary of terms, that is part detective story, investigating a mother’s mental illness.


The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a memoir with an unusual structure to match its ever-shifting reality. “I’ve wanted to tell this story for as long as I can remember wanting anything at all,” writes Kim Adrian (Sock): the story of her mentally ill mother, how she got this way and what Adrian can or should do about it.

Linda, Adrian’s mother, has been diagnosed with a long list of ailments: borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, bipolar, psychosis, paranoia and more. Adrian’s father is an alcoholic; his memories, his assertions that Linda wasn’t always this crazy, “not like she is now,” can’t be trusted, because “he’d been drunk the whole time.” Adrian’s sister has few memories from their childhood. In constructing this narrative, then, she relies entirely on her own memory. But the trouble with remembering the truth of what happened is that Linda’s lies, manipulations and her own troubles with reality created a wildly shifting experience for her oldest daughter. If Linda retold a story, the very truth of it changed for Adrian. Reconstructing the past now is therefore a fraught undertaking.

This troubled and troubling attempt to reorganize a life is organized alphabetically, beginning with an anecdote titled “Abecedarian” about an unexplained event in grade school, and ending not with “Zigzag” (Linda weaving down a city sidewalk), but with the entries under “&.” “Until the mid-nineteenth century, the ampersand was considered the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet,” and for Adrian it offers inclusivity, “a verbal umbrella” under which she is both mother and daughter, both happy and sad.

This structure, the glossary, would feel contrived or awkward in less capable hands. The narrative of Adrian’s childhood through her own motherhood and healthy, loving family life is told more-or-less chronologically, but in fragments, whose alphabetized titles emphasize the narrator’s reliance on words, on the power of storytelling to restructure her experiences, perhaps to fix something. The glossary’s entries are anecdotes, descriptions of family photographs or simple definitions. “Domesticity: A kind of faith, in my experience.” Deceptively simple fragments add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Adrian’s story is often horrifying. Both of her parents were violent; her mother’s emotional and verbal abuse is ongoing and perhaps more shocking still. The older woman’s circumstances, bouts of homelessness and hospitalization, and the younger woman’s inability to extricate herself from the cycle of abuse, can be difficult to read. But, see “Hope: The ‘only way of knowing a person,’ said Walter Benjamin, is to love them without it.”

The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is a feat on many levels. Adrian tells a harrowing story, surprisingly redeemed by her own sweet family, but in many ways also continuing. She gives it meaning without having answers to all the questions she still asks herself. Her work as glossator is astonishing and inventive. Her glossary is strangely gripping, with a momentum pulling the reader in and through. The result is whimsical, even darkly funny at times, brimming with compassion, terribly sad and deeply loving. Memoir readers should not miss this singular offering.


This review originally ran in the September 7, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 nutcrackers.

The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco

A devoted, tormented daughter eulogizes a beloved father in this thought-provoking and experimental memoir.

Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye is an intense and unforgettable memoir, as fascinating for its artistry as for its subject matter.

Jeannie was 18 when her father died. Though her mother is beloved and sympathetically portrayed, it was her father who had been her hero, her perfect person. On his deathbed, Jeannie promised him she would write about him. Although there is no sign that he heard, let alone held her to it, this promise would haunt the increasingly troubled young woman for years to come.

Her father had lost his left eye and wore a prosthetic one, which was in fact plastic, “but sometimes I call it glass. Glass implies the ability to be broken.” He lost his left vocal cord, too, and her mother loses hearing in her left ear. “What will be left of me if I lose her?” Jeannie’s father had a daughter before her, from an earlier marriage, who died in a car accident. That daughter was Jeanne; the daughter who promised to write this book is Jeannie, pronounced the same but with an added i. She fills her book with meditations on glass and left.

The Glass Eye is not what the 18-year-old intended to write. In the years after her father dies, Jeannie appears to function at high levels: she receives several degrees and works for prestigious publications. However, she is hospitalized repeatedly, battling mental illness and devastating grief. Everything is about her father–“Of course I hallucinated my eyes had fallen out.” A symptom of bipolar disorder (one of several diagnoses Jeannie receives) is a preoccupation with ” ‘clang associations,’ connections between words dictated by sound rather than meaning,” although for Jeannie, eye and i and I are also connected by meaning.

Vanasco pays compulsive attention to metaphors, and to the project of writing this memoir, which becomes a meta-exercise observing itself. She wonders, “What’s my hindsight perspective? Is this my narrative present?” and plays with plot. She asks the professor in her memoir course, “What if it’s about the promise to write the book?” The Glass Eye is indeed about Vanasco’s promise, as it’s about her father, grief, loss, her dead half-sister and reckoning with her own mental illness. And it’s about itself: both memoir and writing-about-writing.

Lyric, haunted, smart and tortured, this is an obsessive love letter to a dead father as well as a singular work of literature. The Glass Eye will attract memoir fans and readers concerned with mental illness and bereavement, as well as writers concerned with craft.


This review originally ran in the September 15, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 dollhouses.

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky

This fascinating history of New York’s famous public hospital provides a microcosm of national and worldwide medical history.

bellevue

Bellevue is one of the oldest and most famous names in United States hospitals, known for housing violent criminals and mental health patients, the homeless and sufferers of rare and exotic diseases. The incredible, multi-layered history told by David Oshinsky in Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital covers medical and general history both national and global. This thorough narrative is wide-ranging and endlessly gripping.

The institution began in 1736 as an almshouse, where the indigent were housed and given rudimentary medical care. From these earliest days, “Bel-Vue” had a reputation for dealing with society’s unwanted. And as Oshinsky shows, in its many incarnations, this reputation is intact. The flipside is that this public hospital has always attracted service-minded professionals pursuing innovation. Before modern considerations of medical ethics, this often meant experimenting on Bellevue’s impoverished patients and their diverse range of ailments: in exchange for charity medical aid, the thinking went, they offered themselves for clinical trials–as painful and medieval as they could be at times. Nevertheless, the hospital became central over the years in battling the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s, the “Great Influenza” of the 1910s, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the September 11 attacks and Superstorm Sandy. Bellevue would see hospitals shift from being considered a last resort, only for those too poor to afford a private doctor’s home visits, to becoming the best medical care available (the development of anesthesia, germ theory and infection control being crucial).

The hospital has enjoyed affiliations with several medical schools, among the U.S.’s earliest and best, including its continuing relationship with New York University. NYU students get training in a premier teaching hospital that still treats an enormous and diverse patient population, while Bellevue gets talented, passionate residents and interns, many of whom remain and make their careers there. The history of Bellevue reflects social struggles, as women, Jews and African Americans gradually gained access to the medical profession, and anti-immigrant vitriol was aimed in turn at Irish, Italian and Jewish populations, among others, as waves of struggling immigrants contributed to Bellevue’s patient population. Bellevue successfully treated New York’s sole Ebola patient in 2014. Its tenuous funding situation (mostly public, and always under attack), high standards of care and public service mission continue.

Bellevue’s beauty and staggering scope lies in these historic, social and interdisciplinary connections. William Burroughs, Sylvia Plath, Charlie Mingus and Lead Belly passed through Bellevue’s history; its physicians have traveled the world and played roles in the scientific advances that have shaped modern medicine. Bellevue hosted the invention of forensic medicine, and major developments in medical photography, child psychiatry and AIDS treatments. Oshinsky (Pulitzer Prize-winner for Polio: An American Story) generally adheres to an impersonal, journalistic style, but his moving portrayal can’t hide his admiration for this longstanding institution. Bellevue is that rare, page-turning history: engaging, smart, clearly written and of broad general interest.


This review originally ran in the October 14, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 five-gallon containers of fuel.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

A South Korean woman’s decision to become a vegetarian has surprising and memorable consequences.

vegetarian

Yeong-hye was an ordinary woman–a trait her husband appreciated–until she made the shocking decision to become a vegetarian. In South Korea, this is unusual and socially scandalous; her family reacts by railing and trying to force her to eat meat. “I had a dream,” is all she says in explanation. Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian recounts Yeong-hye’s choice and its consequences.

Three sections tell the story from different perspectives: Yeong-hye’s disgusted and frustrated husband; her brother-in-law, a video artist whose work and every thought become fixated on Yeong-hye and her “vegetal” nature; and finally, her older sister, in the late stages of the extreme situation brought about by a seemingly simple decision. Their different relationships to the protagonist reveal more of her personality, but they cannot understand her. Vegetarianism is only one stage in Yeong-hye’s extreme plan for metamorphosis, as it turns out. As her story unfolds, this single decision brings increasing disgrace, violence and subversion, and her limited control over her own life diminishes.

This is a dreamy story with depth and mystery, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith with nuance and a tone of growing wonderment. Yeong-hye is a confounding and almost mystical character, never seen through her own point of view. In the end, The Vegetarian asks questions about mental illness and the significance of personal choice. Yeong-hye’s story is disquieting, thought-provoking and precisely formed.


This review originally ran in the February 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 trees.

Every Last Tie: The Story of the Unabomber and His Family by David Kaczynski

David Kaczynski’s contemplation of his brother’s life and crimes is sensitive and skillfully composed, with broad appeal.

every last tie

David Kaczynski is a poet, a former English teacher, an impassioned opponent of the death penalty and the younger brother of Ted Kaczynski, better known to the world as the Unabomber. In Every Last Tie, he contemplates “loving memories and painful outcomes,” hoping to illuminate his brother’s and his own experiences.

Some of David’s message involves correcting misconceptions. For example, he says it was not his heroism but his wife Linda’s compassionate and principled actions that identified the Unabomber. He relates the process of recognizing Ted’s voice in the Unabomber’s manifesto: Linda’s concern, David’s denial, the careful considerations they conducted together and the final decision–betrayal of his brother or betrayal of yet more innocent lives. David often contemplates such difficult questions as how to explain Ted Kaczynski’s illness and actions, coming from a family that David portrays as caring, close and committed to education and integrity. He characterizes Ted as a loving older brother increasingly withdrawn from society, a tortured genius and, finally, a mentally ill man David no longer understands. The decision to identify his brother still prickles. “Ted’s cruelty stigmatizes my good name; but my reputation for goodness comes at his expense. Like all contrived opposites, we reinforce one another.”

Every Last Tie is beautifully written, searingly honest, in no way the sensational tell-all it might have been, but a careful exercise–sometimes emotional, sometimes intellectual–in self-examination. David clearly wants to pile praise on his beloved parents, but chooses to consider their complexities, seeking truth over comfort. The result contains a certain amount of psychological analysis (especially in a thorough afterword by James L. Knoll IV, a forensic psychiatrist who has both studied Ted Kaczynski’s case and come to know David well), but the book is also a meditation on notions of family, “the premise that a brother shows you who you are–and who you are not.” David struggles to reconcile the brother he loved and the serial killer he turned in, but does not belabor the point, choosing instead to remember and share what he knows, and acknowledge the mystery. Knoll’s afterword makes a more pointed criticism of the United States’ “nonsystem” of mental health care.

This slim, intriguing book is the story of a family whose two sons lead different lives. David Kaczynski’s voice is quietly thoughtful, and his writing is lovely; he ranges from family anecdote to psychological puzzle to philosophical musing while retaining an even tone. Every Last Tie is both a straightforward story and a complex consideration of an extremely difficult one.


This review originally ran in the January 26, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 letters.

better to burn out than fade away?

As you know, I’ve recently begun reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I started with the biographical note (unattributed), and the introduction, which is by Terry Tempest Williams, a friend of Stegner’s. These prepared me well: I began with just a hint of what the story was about, and felt like I got to know the author just a little. I like Williams, so that connection felt good, too. Before beginning to read the novel itself, I was reminded of Norman Maclean. The tone of voice in Williams’s short intro, and in the biographical note, is gentle and loving and matches the tone in which people write about Maclean. And it got me thinking about a very different sort of author.

Ernest Hemingway always thought of himself as a future famous writer, beginning when he was very small; his self-image was one step ahead of his actual place in the world, but he was never mistaken. He designed & intended his identity as the larger-than-life author-man archetype, and then he lived into that legend. (He convinced us to varying degrees, of course, but I don’t think we need argue that he didn’t live the story he’d written for himself.) He then died just shy of his 62nd birthday of a self-inflicted double-barreled shotgun blast to the head while his wife slept a few rooms over. His late years were tormented by mental illness, paranoia, and an increasing and overwhelming distress that he was failing to fulfill his potential. But all his life he fought his demons, and there’s plenty of evidence that suicide was on his mind many decades before he pulled the trigger.

By contrast, Norman Maclean lived to be 87 (and published 2 very important books and a number of essays). Wallace Stegner lived to be 84 (and published 28 books). In their art they both exude a sense of calm, and in late life commanded a quiet, loving respect in their peers and, in death, in their survivors that Hemingway does not. So my question is this. Would Hemingway have chosen for himself a long life, a quiet, respected, accomplished old age, surrounded by contentment? Or would he have joined Kurt Cobain in quoting the Neil Young lyric, that it’s “better to burn out than fade away”?

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