By John Lyle Belden
Over time, I have gotten to know persons who shared their struggles with Dissociative Identity Disorder, which pop culture gave the misleading label of “multiple personalities.” This mental health condition is complex and usually borne of deep personal trauma.
Therefore, the Trigger Warnings for “Coping with Autumn,” the new drama written and directed by Megan Ann Jacobs for Theatre Unchained, presented by Arts for Lawrence, should be taken seriously.
Autumn (Kyrsten Lyster) is under observation after her arrest for killing her boyfriend. She decides that if you are going to watch, she will give you a show, telling you the story of how she arrived in this unfurnished cell.
During her narration, we meet the occupants of her mind: Dee (Maresa Eileen Kelly), the eternal child who won’t tell her what happened when alone with her father, appears shortly before her mother (Rachel A. Snyder) divorces and moves them from Wisconsin to Indiana. Joy (Ethany Reeder Michaud), the impulsive, takes over when potential new high school friends invite her to a party, then ensures Autumn has a “good time.” When regrets set in, Vera (Roci Contreras), the confrontational, appears to make sure those classmates never bother her again.
Like many misfits, Autumn feels more at home at a distant college. There, she is befriended by Kasey (Brittany Magee). They bond over poetry and spend a lot of time together, until Kasey invites Autumn to a “small” get-together. Naturally, it’s another wild crowd, and then the bag of drugs comes out.
Before her “friends” emerge, Autumn exits, and meets Steven (Thomas Sebald). He seems so nice, and perfect. He pampers her, gives her fancy meals and nice gifts. Then he starts making demands. Is this what love is like? Must be, she thinks, and does everything she can to please him – until she can’t. Kasey has been shut out, and Steven has charmed Mom. Who can help her? I’ll give you three guesses.
The second act features Autumn’s trial and aftermath. New allies include therapist Dr. Weber (Kelly Keller) and pro bono attorney Alex (Joe Wagner), who feels a personal connection to the case. But Sebald returns to the stage as a prosecuting attorney, the resemblance not lost on Autumn.
Lyster, who has shown so much range in past roles, is amazing here. Magee, who joined the cast late into the production, is incredible in support. Snyder is superb, and by happy accident has a physical resemblance to her “daughter.” Their portrayals of well-meaning but damaged women never slip into cliche and evoke appropriate emotional responses from the audience and each other.
This ain’t “Inside Out.” The two adolescents and child that represent portions of
Autumn’s psyche are neither cartoonish nor comic relief. The dissociation is handled respectfully in smooth transitions with Lyster so that we easily see the four actors as aspects of the same woman.
Sebald plays Steven so disarmingly kind (when the monster is hidden away), it’s easy to see how men like this character can charm and trap women who find no one believes them when relationships turn abusive. And when he’s a beast, “evil” is an understatement.
Cast and crew took this sensitive topic seriously. During a post-show talk-back, dramaturg Max Andrew McCreary said he shared his mental health research with them, including that according to one source, it is estimated that nearly half of adults have at one time had a sort of dissociative incident, from a moment feeling outside one’s body, all along the spectrum to rare cases of true DID (fictional Autumn’s condition is on the spectrum). All involved took consent into account throughout the entire process, from the first rehearsal. Sebald, who said he had helped workshop Steven/Prosecutor, said this was especially essential for him to feel comfortable in his role. This atmosphere of trust helped make the action in this drama more raw and natural, which some in the audience noted in their comments.
If you have experience with abuse and/or psychological trauma, be careful about seeing this. But for any who can manage, this is highly recommended. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 19-21 (post-show talkbacks on Thursday and Saturday) at Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave., Lawrence (off the north end of Indy’s Post Road). Get info and tickets at TheatreUnchained.org or ArtsForLawrence.org.