Despite the passage of more than 40 years since it was published, the psychiatric issues raised by Joanne Greenberg’s famous account of her struggle with schizophrenia remain timely, particularly given the current controversies raging over the ubiquitous use of antidepressants (and other mood- and mind-altering drugs) by adults and children.
In playwright Walter L. Newton’s script, the debate between traditional psychotherapeutic exploration and preemptive chemical intervention is further sharpened by his borrowings from “To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World,” Gail A. Hornstein’s 2000 biography of Greenberg’s noted physiotherapist, Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann.
Employing three brightly costumed, imaginatively decorated monsters to represent the voices haunting Deborah Klein, the autobiographical subject, and cross-hatching these internal dialogues with sessions between doctor and patient, Newton paints a portrait of mental illness rare in its realism.
Pinned between these worlds — the murky stone-faced medieval towers upstage, evoking the most hideous asylums, and a series of interiors as needed downstage — Karalyn Pytel’s Deborah writhes and cowers, and, alternately, analyzes her own predicament with a lucidity that impresses her therapist, the irrepressible Dr. Fried (Paige L. Larson).
Pytel’s characterization is impressive in the detail of its psychotic indications, especially in her seemingly involuntary hand gestures, self-inflicted abuses and facial distortions. The uniqueness of her disturbance is underscored by an equally creative turn from Kellie Rae Rockey as Carla, Deborah’s institutionalized cohort.
In addition to Deborah’s journey, Newton uses Dr. Fried’s commentary to amplify Greenberg’s plea for more analysis and less medication. With a thick German accent and a gait that bears witness to the doctor’s dogged determination, Larson brings us a heroic Fried — compassionate toward her patient, steadfast in her isolated beliefs and, finally, susceptible to her own demons.
Though they’re not given a lot to work with during the early scenes, Rick Bernstein and Karen Kargel, as Deborah’s parents, slowly piece together the trappings of a difficult marriage in perfs that eventually exhibit an impressive gravity. Clyde Sacks is a sinister and slithering Anterrabae, the chief god of Deborah’s imaginary — and compensatory — world of Yr.
Never having been workshopped, Newton’s script could use some tweaking, particularly in the early sketches of the parents’ relationship and its contribution to Deborah’s illness.
Also, the rough texture of the heavily episodic first act could be smoothed out by reconceiving the scene changes to eliminate some blackouts and speed the action around the stage.
Overall, though, the dramatic arc is a compelling mix of personal, familial and professional themes that represents the actual events in a way the 1977 film does not. Newton’s coup de grace, a multilayered denouement in which the fortunes of Deborah and Dr. Fried reverse, is an especially imaginative piece of writing.