Messages go out about the struggle within

By John Lyle Belden

“I don’t know what’s worse, trying to kill yourself or living with the fact that you tried to kill yourself.”

This lament sums up the situation for Claire, the young woman at the center of “Letters Sent,” the new drama by local writer Janice Hibbard in its world premiere with Fat Turtle Theatre Company at the Indy Eleven Theatre.

Not every suicide comes with a note, but Claire (Lexy Weixel) wrote nine. She composed and sent them as snail-mail letters — bypassing the Internet for greater privacy — then went to her apartment bathroom and opened up her wrist. However, her mother, Florence (Kathryn Comer Paton), happened to discover her before it was too late.

The play begins with Claire cocooned in a bed in the attic of her mother’s house, just days after her discharge from the hospital. Adjusting to being not-dead is rough. We come to meet the people closest to her, including boyfriend/pseudo-brother (it’s complicated) Jack (Joe Barsanti), best friends Emma (Becky Lee Meacham) and Jane (Victoria Kortz), and her father, Robert (Doug Powers), who had moved to Florida after the divorce. Our story is set in Michigan, for a reason that soon becomes evident.

Claire’s mental progress is tracked through sessions with her therapist (Wendy Brown). Here we find that the letters were sent not only to the five people we meet, but also to four people Claire considered enemies — a final middle-finger to them on her way out, she says.

There does indeed seem to be progress, but the way isn’t easy, and when secrets held by those closest to Claire are uncovered, everything could come undone.

Weixel inhabits Claire perfectly, swinging from charming to childish to morose to wracked with guilt, constantly struggling with the messages from others as well as from within her head. Though the character, like the actor, is in her early 20s, Claire being at this life crossroads has regressed her into a sort of frustrated teenager. Still, she is relatable, someone you want to reach out to.

Paton, as a Mom who must maintain control as chaos terrifies her, is both Claire’s savior and a well-meaning obstacle to her recovery. Powers is the cool Dad, perhaps because he understands Claire’s struggle more than she knows. Barsanti’s Jack is a hot mess in his own way, and Kortz and Meacham are friends dealing with the desire to be supportive, but either too confident (Emma) or unsure (Jane) of exactly how.

The topics of mental illness and suicide seem to pop up quite often lately, even on stage. Just a couple of months ago, we had “Every Brilliant Thing” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. One important lesson we get from both that play and this is that what we think will help won’t necessarily work — but given a chance, a spark from within can be what saves us. Will Claire find hers?

Directed by Fat Turtle artistic director Brandi Underwood, performances of “Letters Sent” run through March 24 at the Indy Eleven, a stage in the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair. For tickets and info, visit fatturtletheatre.com or indyfringe.org.

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IRT: Happiness is a long list

By Wendy Carson

Depression, suicide, and mental illness have all been highly stigmatized subjects. Only recently have we as a nation been broaching these topics, yet still refer to them in hushed tones.

In the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s staging of “Every Brilliant Thing” by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, we are presented with a unique look at someone dealing with the above issues through personal accounts of his experiences.

This is the story of a Man (no name is given) whose mother’s first attempt at suicide is when he is 7 years old. To somehow make sense of things, and help her heal, he begins to make a list of things that are worth living for. No matter how hard he tries to get this across to her, she seems to not listen. After a while the list is abandoned in the pages of a favorite book and forgotten.

During his college years, he begins wooing a girl and inadvertently loans her the book containing the list. She delights in the idea and returns it to him with a few of her own additions. The two continue adding to the list and he continues to send its contents to his mother, but to no avail. Her suicidal tendencies overwhelm her no matter what.

Since this is not a fairy tale, nobody lives happily ever after. The man and his girlfriend marry, then separate. The abandoned list resurfaces, only about 1,000 items shy of one million. How many more Brilliant Things can they add?

The story overall is quite endearing. It’s never too dark or too syrupy, but very true to the realities of the world. What sets it apart is the manner in which it is presented.

Prior to the show, lone performer Marcus Truschinski hands out postcards and other scraps of paper to various members of the audience. Each has a word or phrase on it along with a number. When he mentions that number – an item on the list – during the show, the person holding the corresponding card must shout out the information for all to hear.

There is a small section of audience seating at the rear of the stage which patrons can choose. Of course, these people will be incorporated into the show, as the script requires various other people to interact with Truschinski in order to tell the story. However, in a stroke of misdirection, audience members from all over are actually used.

True to the show’s fringe-festival roots, with its audience interaction each performance is entirely unique. Add to this Truschinski’s amazing improv skills and you have an evening of theater that is uplifting, thought provoking, touching, and enriching throughout.

Make a note to add this experience to your own list. Performances are through Feb. 10 on the upperstage of the IRT, 140 W. Washington St. in downtown Indy; call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.

IndyFringe: ‘Hers is the Head of a Wolf’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By Wendy Carson

First of all, let me tell you that this show is about Schizophrenia. It’s initial scene makes that unclear and there is the ambiguity of the situation where it could be about something else (read: lycanthropy). Now that you know this, lets talk about the show.

This show is powerful and amazing. It does a great job of giving insight to the real struggle of a victim of this disease and those around them who are either trying to help them or just be a part of their life.

I was especially impressed by the portrayal of Danny, who starts as her tutor and then begins to turn into a boyfriend. His character is not white-washed wholesome nor entirely cut-and-dried sympathetic. He gets angry and loud at times but is tender and concerned at others which is a much more realistic look at how one would be in the real world.

The therapist, Dr. Hamilton, is genuinely concerned and clearly doing his best to help guide his patient through learning to cope with this debilitating disease. However, even at his most earnest, his voice and advice does sound a bit patronizing.

Then of course, there is our heroine(?) Elise. She literally strips herself bare and exposes her fear, vulnerability, and sheer revulsion at her plight. She struggles to overcome her demons (whose voices we eventually hear for ourselves). She didn’t ask to be like this. She doesn’t want to be like this. She just wants to feel safe for once in her life.
What becomes of each of our players is for you to witness and by all means, you really should witness this. Just know that the show is gut-wrenching and can be overwhelming (much like the condition it portrays).
One performance remains, 9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21, at the IndyFringe Indy Eleven Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, just east of the Mass Ave. and College intersection.

Phoenix: Try this ‘reality’ programming

By John Lyle Belden

“Cry It Out,” the drama finishing the Phoenix Theatre’s eventful 2017-18 season, impacts you with just how real it feels.

As I’m sure playwright Molly Smith Metzler and this show’s director, Chelsey Stauffer, are aware, this is an effective “issue” play in that the focus is more on the people going through the issue than the thing itself. In this case, it’s what’s considered a universal experience – becoming parents to your first child, focusing on doing so in today’s world, and the psychological toll we are only beginning to understand.

Metzler has found the perfect setting: a Long Island neighborhood where Jessie (Lauren Briggeman), an upper-middle class professional, lives right across her back yard from Lena (Sally Scharbrough), who is struggling working-class, while on a cliff just hundreds of feet away are the very rich, of whom we meet Mitchell (Michael Hosp) and Adrienne (Andrea Heiden).

Feeling alone in her new-mommy experience, Jessie reaches out to Lena, who is grateful to have a likely friend so close at hand. In their perfectly crafted and acted conversations, we see the psychological walls they hit when their social and financial differences are made clear, followed by the earnest efforts to bridge their gap – for the sake of their own sanity as well as the benefit of their babies – forming a bond that seems so natural, like that friend you just “click” with.

Seeing this from his lofty view, Mitchell decides to ask them if his wife can join them for one of their “coffee meetings” – in one of the most uncomfortably comedic scenes I’ve seen lately. But when Adrienne arrives, she is not happy to be there. Clearly, these people have issues.

The sense of reality goes beyond the fact that it’s easy to forget Briggeman and Scharbrough are not actually moms with sleeping babies just offstage. This drama plays with your expectations in a clever way, by taking your “oh, I know how this is going to go” we’ve been conditioned to by TV, films and wishful thinking, and bringing a twist that is just like what happens to people you actually know. Being largely told from Jessie’s perspective, the story also confronts her and us with our assumptions. And in the process, we get some situational laughs – like real life.

This is one of those plays (thanks again, Phoenix!) that I can’t say you’ll “enjoy” in the fun sense, more like the fact that you’ll savor first-class acting and come away with some great food for thought. Come hungry.

“Cry It Out” plays through Aug. 26 in the “black box” Basile stage – seating surrounds most of the stage area – at the Phoenix’s new permanent home, 705 N. Illinois St. Note showtimes are a half-hour different than the mainstage. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.

IndyFringe: ‘Canvas’

By John Lyle Belden

Standard disclaimer: I’ve known Casey Ross for years and love everything she does. So I can’t help but recommend this show, with a small caveat (see below).

“Canvas” is the third chapter of Ross’s trilogy that began with “Gallery” and continued with “Portraits” – both past Fringe shows. If you haven’t seen them, this play is still easy to follow, and a quick synopsis of the first two is in the program.

The story again focuses on two artists, best friends Jackson (Davey Pelsue) and Frank (Dave Ruark). In the past, free-spirit Jackson leaned on solid academic Frank, but now their situation is reversed as Jackson, a successful painter, cares for Frank, who has partial amnesia after an “accidental” drug overdose.

Once again, they struggle to define their relationship as each deeply loves the other, but the fact that one is straight and the other gay further complicates their feelings and actions. Their friends try to help, but have been burned by dysfunctional relationships with these two and can only do so much.

There is dark humor, raw emotion, and – my one caution – a frank examination of suicide. No easy answers are given, though this play does draw the trilogy to a conclusion.

Between Ross’s knack for sharp dialogue and a solid job by the actors, this play has earned its place as one of the hottest tickets at the Fringe. Get them if you can for performances Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 25-26 ,at Theatre on the Square’s second stage.

Festival info: www.indyfringe.org.

Review: Not an easy ‘Road’

By John Lyle Belden

The Phoenix Theatre doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, and neither does popular playwright Steven Dietz, whose newest work, “Clover Road,” occupies the Phoenix’s Basile downstairs stage through April 10.

Kate Hunter (played by Jen Johansen), a mother whose child has been missing for four years, receives word that her teenage daughter is on the compound of a cult run by the charismatic Harris McClain (Bill Simmons). We meet Kate as she arrives at a room in an abandoned motel with a man (Rob Johansen) who has been hired to abduct the girl and bring her back to the room for deprogramming. He tests her resolve and thickness of her psychic armor before leaving, then arrives later with a girl Kate doesn’t recognize (Mara Lefler). The mind games begin – for everyone involved in this story – building to an inevitably tragic conclusion.

The opening night performance made a profound impression on mental health professionals in the audience.

“I kept thinking, ‘this is very realistic,’” said Katie Sahm, a licensed clinical social worker with Counseling Associates in the Community Health network, during a post-play discussion. Lefler’s portrayal of a youth convinced of the cult leader’s apocalyptic message felt accurate, she said.

The play reveals “the vulnerability of all of us,” said Jim Bush, Director of Operations for Eskenazi Health Midtown Community Mental Health Center. The desperation to believe what they hope is true and right is shown in all the characters, aside from svengali McClain, who Simmons imbues with easy charisma.

Sahm, Bush and family therapist Dr. Barbara Riggs, with play director Courtney Sale, frequently cited a person’s need for validation as a factor in why teens like the girl in “Clover Road” find themselves in cults, gangs or with strangers they meet online. Audience discussion turned to the role of social media. At one point in the play, it’s revealed the missing girl had been in contact with a person online who told her what she wanted, or needed, to hear.

“That’s the truly frightening part,” Sahm said of the issue of defending against predators who would wield personal validation as a weapon.

The play’s themes and the expert portrayals – the Johansens and Simmons are excellent as always, and Lefler makes a brilliant Phoenix debut – deliver riveting drama, and are bound to start interesting conversations on the way home.

The Phoenix Theatre is at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.

(Review also posted at The Word.)