Thirteen years ago, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble presented the Coast premiere of David Edgar’s rambling, yet savagely haunting play. Staged by Ron Sossi and featuring a mind-rending performance by Laurie O’Brien, “Mary Barnes” became a highly acclaimed and honored production. In conjunction with the Odyssey’s 25th anniversary, Sossi, with O’Brien reprising, has re-staged the production, and it is even better the second time around.
The work by Edgar (adaptor of “Nicholas Nickleby”) chronicles the six-year journey through madness of Mary Barnes. Set in 1960s London and based on the personal accounts of Barnes and therapist Joseph Berke, the work follows the middle-aged former nurse through her years as a resident of Kingsley Hall, a controversial residence/therapy facility headed by the even more controversial Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing.
Though the Kingsley Hall experiment has been proclaimed as a turning point in the treatment of schizophrenia, Edgar keeps his focus directly on Barnes, reducing the fellow residents to complementary but underdeveloped supporting players.
The ensemble, under the multilayered direction of Odyssey artistic director Sossi, more than adequately fills in the gaps. There is also an energetic lightness to this production that better serves to balance the careening machinations of the central character.
As Mary, O’Brien unleashes a frightening visage of a human being reduced to raging, infantile beast. Though Edgar has thrown too much of the play her way, O’Brien masterfully guides the audience through the essence of Barnes’ painfully slow mental and sociological journey to sanity and her eventual emergence as a writer and artist. Giving powerful support is Eric Drachman as Mary’s therapist, Joe (i.e., Berke). Drachman portrays the hippy-era idealist to shaggy perfection , exhibiting a total commitment to plunge into Mary’s madness no matter where it leads.
As two other therapists, Dave Higgins (the Laing figure) and Brian Mulligan are excellent as more or less good-natured, sometimes bickering commentators on the central relationship of Mary and Joe. And Johanna McKay exudes a glowing “mother earth” presence as a fellow therapist.
Offering colorful and original portrayals of Kinglsey Hall residents are Christopher Neiman, Alix Koromzay, Alan Abelew, Ginta Rae and Michael Adler.
The production features a wonderfully lived-in Kingsley Hall interior design by Eric Warren, complemented by the seamless lighting of Kathi O’Donohue. The paintings of Joan Mueller are quite believable as the represented work of the slowly evolving Barnes.
Special mention should also go to the uncredited sound design, featuring excellent use of ’60s pop music, not only to segue scenes but also to underscore the emotional intensity of the onstage action.