This play, which has been directed by Tony winner Judith Ivey, isn’t about music per se but rather about that other kind of fugue, something those of us who’ve watched too much unimaginative television would probably call amnesia. This kind of mental breakdown, the complete loss of a self, is the starting point for composer Thuna and conductor Ivey, but the melodic connections they attempt to dislodge in all this result in a strangely out-of-tune evening.
Thuna has constructed this Fugue like the musical variety, establishing a central figure - known around her current home in a Chicago hospital as Mary (played with a rock-solid instability by Deirdre O’Connell) - and letting the emotional variations her mind gradually unleashes duet with and contradict her by turns. As her memories become freer and once again familiar under the knowing guidance of Danny (Rick Stear), a doctor with a past of his own he’d like to bury, Mary begins to reclaim the life she once literally lost her mind to forget.
Among its features: her mother (Catherine Wolf), a boy named Noel (Ari Butler) she was once very fond of, and a spunky girl named Tammy (Lily Corvo) who’s apparently her daughter. The overlapping of these themes becomes a carefully orchestrated exercise in concentrated secret keeping that only reluctantly gives way to a truth Mary can bear. Though Thuna apportions storytelling in small doses, never allowing us to stay more than half a step ahead of Mary, it never feels that we’re being withheld crucial information about how these relationships self-destructed, or that Mary is being artificially prevented from unraveling her personal history.
What never happens along the way is anything that places her story in any particular social or psychological context. Interesting as individual elements of Mary’s life prove, most of which focus on one kind of abandonment or another (from an institution-bound father to her own committing her mother to a hospital against her will), they all seem to present primarily to pursue clichés so severe they dispel the sparkling allure of Mary’s puzzle.
A wise-cracking Southern woman named Zelda (Charlotte Booker) claims to have known Mary from school, but is such a walking ray of sunshine you don’t believe a word she says. Danny’s colleague (Liam Craig) warns him to stay objective with his patients, and vocally disapproves (as often as possible) of his methods of relating to his childlike patients. Danny’s own problems mirror Mary’s closely enough that his expression of their similarities is eye-rolling rather than meaningful.
Ivey has done well staging the play on Neil Patel’s hospital-room-and-metal-catwalk set, finding plenty of ways for actors to float on and offstage much as their characters do in Mary’s mind. Her work with the actors is considerably less consistent: Wolf does firm and realistic work as a stern authoritarian who always knows more than she tells, while Booker’s performance seems to emanate entirely from her overly primped (and volumized) hair. Corvo and Butler play their characters at a range of ages as though they were eternally (and cloyingly) 10 years old.
Better still is Danielle Skraastad, as the mysterious but most prominent fixture in Mary’s emerging recollections. Playing Liz Kruger, a rich woman with whom Mary develops a very intimate friendship, Skraastad provides a sophisticated and welcome shard of realism among the shattered remnants of Mary’s personality. She anchors for us (and presumably for Mary) events that could all too easily degenerate into fantasy, but which must remain corporeal for Mary’s sake.
Much of the second act is as much about Liz as it is about Mary, underscoring the two women’s importance to each other. But as Mary gets closer to discovering what drove them apart, Liz’s entire existence becomes about not fading away in the light of a potentially uncomfortable truth. It’s perhaps the most telling part of this production that her struggle is far more interesting than the theatrically therapeutic scenes that surround it. In Fugue, as in life, the losses are often more worthwhile than the gains.