It’s a good thing the sun is shining. I’ve just spent several hours with three determined, credibly suicidal women and the people who love them.
“I’m sorry.” Carol (Carla Gugino) is picked up at the hospital by solicitous husband John (Richard Topol). Despite filling the freezer with meals, taking pills and slitting her wrists, she insists it was an accident. “Please can we go home? I’ll cook your supper.” Carol is attractive, well put together, self possessed.
Anna (Celeste Arias) has a broken/wrapped wrist. A doctor (Jason Babinsky) asks whether she remembers what happened. The disheveled young woman is a heroin addict, clearly somewhat high, jittery and babbling. These two had a relationship years ago. He reminds Anna she stole from him, drugged and bedded his 15 year-old brother.
Jo (Jo Mei) gets her palm stitched up by Bonnie (Gabby Beans), another physician. It was an occupational hazard; she’s a fisherman. The somewhat butch patient comes on to her doctor who at first dully deflects, then agrees to what she thinks is a one night stand. Jo won’t let go.
All three stories play out across the stage simultaneously, sometimes verbally overlapping, but during different time periods. Anna is Carol’s daughter, Bonnie is Anna’s daughter. It’s a testament to carefully synchronized direction and performance verisimilitude that confusion doesn’t ensue.
We watch otherwise ordinary days in the lives of these women shadowed by past events. Each copes in her own way. Carol gives birth with opposing emotions of commitment and fury. She resolves to survive only until Anna is old enough to withstand her mother’s passing, going through the motions. Husband John is steadfast, but can do no more than a succession of doctors/therapies to stem the tide.
Anna cleans up and falls in love. She warns Jamie (Julian Elijah Martinez) to no avail. They marry. Her pregnancy and motherhood swing from euphoria to panic. Jamie doesn’t seem to realize the extent of his wife’s pain. Bonnie shuts herself off connection, keeping relationships as casual as possible. She seems frigid except, one gathers, during sex. Drawn compulsively to history, the character is at first salved, then destroyed.
Woven through these lives are John’s well meaning cousin Emma (Miriam Silverman), a precocious, motor mouth adolescent (Ava Briglia, who also plays Anna as a child), and various peripheral men (Vince Nappo).
Above are the bare bones of playwright Alice Birch’s immensely effective tale. The journey is compelling well beyond fact. Each of these women is beautifully written and inhabited with specific attributes. Their lives are very different. We don’t learn of heritage until well into individual portraits. Other memories/ties are peeled away onion style creating a succession of illuminations.
All three heroines appear to fight predisposition, though Carol is well along when we meet. Birch sees no possibility of redemptive treatment. Watching helplessly with those who care, one feels fascinated, dispirited, and sympathetic. Writing is first rate.
The very fine company showcases three and a half powerful performances. Carla Gugino, Celeste Arias, and Jo Mei are terrific. Gabby Beans is the half; internalization shares a bit too little for us to fix upon.
Director Liliana Blain-Cruz keeps everything flowing without jerky or time consuming transitions, adroitly paces separate vignettes, and creates wonderful physicality in portraiture.
Mariana Sanchez’ set is almost a blank canvas suited to every locale. Rucyl Frison employs just the right generational music for each era without distracting. Projections by Hannah Wasileski are subtle.
HHS: There is growing evidence that familial and genetic factors contribute to the risk for suicidal behavior. Major psychiatric illnesses, including bipolar disorder, major depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism and substance abuse, and certain personality disorders, which run in families, increase the risk for suicidal behavior. This does not mean that suicidal behavior is inevitable for individuals with this family history; it simply means that such persons may be more vulnerable and should take steps to reduce their risk.
Photos by Ahron R. Foster
Opening: Carla Gugino, Jo Mei, Celeste Arias, Gabby Beans, Miriam Silverman
Atlantic Theater Company presents
Anatomy of A Suicide by Alice Birch
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
Through March 15, 2020