Meghan E. Jones’ new play probes the psychology of a trashy tabloid and its victims.
Photo by Feathertree Photography
After a suicide attempt, journalist Jillian of celebrity tabloid Trapper finds herself confined to a mental institution, sharing a room with notorious starlet Jackie Batiste. When Jillian is released, she tries to return to normal life and to redeem herself from the embarrassing revelation of her own struggles. But because Jackie's location and mental state has been hushed up, Jillian soon realizes that she is sitting on the story of a lifetime, provided she is willing to betray her new friend for the blog she works for. And can the eager young writer's fragile grasp on reality survive being thrust into the spotlight when she tells the world everything she knows?
As a story focused on women fighting for self-confidence under the relentless gaze of modern media as well as on a variety of mental illnesses, Meghan E. Jones' Trapper is not the sort of play we get to see on stage very often. And that's a shame, because Jones' delightfully witty dialogue and engaging cast of characters serve as the perfect backdrop for discussing some of the most difficult issues of contemporary culture. This innovative piece directed by Jenny Reed and produced by The Shelter is a fascinating expose into what leads people to say horrible things about celebrities for a living, and how everyone suffers as a result.
Though clearly focused on Jillian and her journey, Trapper features a diverse cast of characters that are both vital to the story and fascinating for their own sakes. There's sheepish gay graphic designer Todd (Noam Harary), as invested in Jillian rising above the nonsense that Trapper writes about as he is dismissive of his own ability to do so, and fellow writer Lisbeth (Jessica O'Hara-Baker), whose antagonism and self-centeredness is matched only by her dedication to green and vegan eating. Magazine owner Rory (Matthew Sanders) is heartbreaking in his support and love for Jillian, but his monologue about realizing that he was not cut out to be a war correspondent or any other sort of serious journalist is one of the highlights of the play.
Jennifer Fouché, meanwhile, almost steals the show as the sassy, borderline incomprehensible custodian Ludmilla. And Kelley Gates is both humorous and deeply moving in her depiction of Jackie's Hollywood-bred neuroticism and body dysphoria. If anything, Jackie as a character is too compelling; her relationship with Jillian quickly forms the heart of the play in the first scene, but the maddening actress is hardly seen for the rest of it.
The role of Jillian herself is certainly a challenge, a fragile young woman desperately clinging to a life she doesn't even really like because it's all she has while debating whether to betray a friend's trust to cement her return to normalcy. For the most part, Morgan McGuire does a skillful job with the character, though her exaggerated moments of suppressed rage sometimes come across as overdone and unnecessary. Still, when McGuire came out on stage for her curtain call, shaking and eyes glistening from the intense emotional journey she had just completed, the audience knew it had witnessed something special.
There is something subtly brilliant about the fact that the set barely changes between the two main settings of the Trapper office and the mental institution, so that Jillian's office constantly appears to the audience as an insane asylum. And though the collection of desks and lack of beds does feel a bit odd for Jillian and Jackie's bedroom, the changing landscape out the window created through projected shadow puppetry is a beautiful detail that sets the scenes apart.
As the play progresses, Jillian begins to break further and further from reality, and some of the actual events become difficult to follow. How does the woman interviewing Jillian for a story, played by the actress who also plays Jackie, know so many intimate details about Jillian's past that only Jackie would know? But again, perhaps that is the point—as Jillian loses control so does the logic of the piece itself.
Ultimately, Trapper is a play about mental illness that is more about emotion than diagnoses and treatments. A gripping, contemporary story with a diverse cast of intriguing characters, Jones' play is as entertaining as it is genuinely discomfiting to anyone who struggles to keep it all under control in an unsatisfying job or relationship. We don't need to have been to the psych ward to understand what it feels like to be caught in Trapper, and that sense of empathy is the play's greatest triumph.
Trapper plays at the Fourth Street Theatre through November 21.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.