Review: ‘Stopping Traffic’

Although everyone's life is a drama, not everyone's drama needs to be staged. Try telling that to Mary Pat Gleason, a character actress with bipolar disorder who seems to think having a mental illness is reason enough for self-dramatization. There's no doubt a certain morbid fascination in watching this playwright-thesp relive her harrowing experiences battling her demons -- especially when these visions and voices make their appearance in the middle of a big movie scene.

Although everyone’s life is a drama, not everyone’s drama needs to be staged. Try telling that to Mary Pat Gleason, a character actress with bipolar disorder who seems to think having a mental illness is reason enough for self-dramatization. There’s no doubt a certain morbid fascination in watching this playwright-thesp relive her harrowing experiences battling her demons — especially when these visions and voices make their appearance in the middle of a big movie scene. But turning this confessional material into a legit theatrical experience would take considerably more effort and craft.

Gleason is chatty, even cheerful, about the psychic episodes that began when she was 34 and working on TV soaps in New York. (She played Jane Hogan on “Guiding Light,” worked on scripts and won an Emmy in 1986 for editing the show.) Playing on the nonexistent humor of suddenly finding herself having hallucinations and walking into traffic, she briskly talks herself through the progression of breakdowns that landed her in strange hospitals in unfamiliar cities, jeopardizing her film and TV career.

Although every episode must surely be a nightmare for anyone experiencing it, the most inherently theatrical of these incidents is the time she broke down on the set of “The Crucible” with Paul Scofield and several hundred other people in the shot. For once, she drops her seriocomic tone and actually looks scared. But that scene’s placement in the play too belatedly hints at the emotions she’s been suppressing with her amiable delivery.

Paradoxically, the efforts of helmer Lonny Price to put a professional gloss on this memoir only make it look more contrived. Monologue is delivered on a hard-edged, boxlike set (Neil Patel) suggestive of a padded cell, with lighting flushes (David Weiner) of highly saturated color thrown against the walls to indicate sudden mood changes. Narrow to begin with, the scope of the monologue shrinks to fit the box.

The bright costume tops supplied by Tracy Christensen do a better job of tailoring design elements to specifics of character development. With each change into a more colorful blouse, Gleason seems to grow in confidence.

Were it not for the costume tipoffs, in fact, we would be hard-pressed to know exactly where Gleason is emotionally positioned during the various stages of her mental roller-coaster ride. For someone who sees angels flapping in the breeze and has visions of Leonard Nimoy as an alien, thesp delivers a consistently controlled perf.

“If we remove the shame around mental illness, if we can speak of it in public without fear of being punished, perhaps we have a chance of finding a cure,” Gleason lectures us in the last line of her monologue. This determination to cleanse a severe mental disorder of its “crazy” curse could explain the strange absence of emotion. But while that approach may help SAG members hang onto their medical benefits, it does little to engage the sympathies of an audience.

Stopping Traffic

Vineyard; 129 seats; $50 top

Production

A Vineyard Theater presentation of a play in one act written and performed by Mary Pat Gleason. Directed by Lonny Price.

Creative

Set, Neil Patel; costumes, Tracy Christensen; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Obadiah Eaves; production stage manager, Kate Hefel. Opened June 7, 2006. Reviewed June 6. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast

With: Mary Pat Gleason.
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