Regional Reviews: St. Louis
"Is there such a thing as a 'disease play'?" I wondered aloud, at intermission. "I don't know, but I hope there's a cure," another reviewer said, glumly. I'm still not sure if he was praying for a cure for Crohn's, or for the disease genre itself.
But ask yourself: what could be closer to Greek tragedy than the modern disease play? Held in the cruel grip of some invisible power, a character on stage thrashes about, pondering the very nature of fate, till he's swept up by one of Tony Kushner's great angels in the end. Or till he winds up in an artists' colony in New York City, like the characters in Rent, or gobbles pills like there's no tomorrow, like the mom in Next to Normal. Today our fate is forged in pharmaceuticals.
The night I attended Facing, two of the main actresses' volume was too low. But the play gathered momentum, and act two was quite respectable, in terms of modern theater. Endearing Laurell Stevenson plays Wilda, a nice, normal young woman of about 24 years of age who's been dealing with symptoms of autoimmune illness most of her life. Untreated till then, she finally ends up in the hospital, where she's initially given steroid injections, which help tremendously. Her doctor is satirically detached, as played by a perfectly cast Nancy Lubowitz. She's well-known around town, and one of the production's big advantages, with both a strong character and a strong voice.
Quinn (Tinah Twardowski) appears in Wilda's hospital room without any explanation, to try to coach the younger woman along the initial learning curve about the disease. And both women are shadowed by additional actresses playing the disease itselfWilda is haunted by a fearsome version of Crohn's, which grips her belly menacingly, and makes her joints painful; while Quinn has developed a more collegial relationship with her own disease, chimera, over the years. Wilda's "Other" is played frighteningly by Lydia Aiken; and Quinn's "Jester" by delightful Anna Drehmer. Both actresses work perfectly as personifications of the maladythough, after Tesseract Theatre's recent "Momma's Boy," with its own nearly silent chorus in black leotards, this may begin to seem like a "season of mime" at the .Zack.
In act two we will learn that Quinn is Wilda's "patient advocate," though by then she has succumbed to another flare-up of the disease herselfstriking a very dark undertone in the play. Ms. Twardowski does an excellent job in those suffering scenes. But the desperation of those moments is balanced by warm flashbacks of Wilda's grandmother, played by kindly Michelle Dillard. Those scenes are hard to hear, but are visually poetic. In the end, Wilda and Quinn come full-circle in their caring relationship.
With new plays, there's always a temptation to tell the playwright what they "got wrong," as if she is just waiting by her computer, ready to rewrite according to all our subjective nitpicks, as if they were the gospel truth. Still, I was left wondering what the scientific background or history or mechanisms of the disease are, in Facing. Some autoimmune diseases like fibromyalgia, which typically affects women, get a terrible rap, for allegedly having a psychosomatic component; while others, like reactive arthritis (Reister's Syndrome), which typically effects men, have verified genetic markers.
But in Facing we already have everything else: drama, suffering, and the restorative powers of self-governance and a good support network.
Facing, through December 23, 2018, at the .Zack Theatre, 3224 Locust Street, St. Louis. For more information visit www.tesseracttheatre.com.