New Light Theater Project brings a fresh approach to Ross Howard’s insane asylum play.
The insane asylum play is hardly new to the world of theater. A realm of stereotypes and outlandish, unrealistic caricatures of insanity, it is a style of play that easily lends itself to farce. What British playwright Ross Howard, resident playwright for New Light Theater Project, has done is quite different, capturing the world of a mental institution with a degree of empathy and sharpness rarely seen in plays about mental illness.
A Contentious, Confined World
Picture Ourselves in Latvia opens on a scene of the patients at the institution on their own, with the exception of an attendant, Oliver, who tells such fanciful stories it's not clear at first that he isn't one of them. Anna, Martin and Duncan's reality consists of little more than talk and television, and yet it is a fully fleshed-out world, alive with energy and their complicated feelings for one another. Then Dr. Rupert arrives, announcing the return of Nurse Whitehall from maternity leave with a surprising degree of enthusiasm, and all of the players are in place.
Most of the tensions in the story are romantic; Duncan likes Anna who likes Martin, while Dr. Rupert and Nurse Whitehall struggle to conceal (or reveal) the attraction they feel for one another in spite of their marriages to other people. The play glories in awkward silences and in saying the wrong thing, even as it also explores the entrapment and complacency of the institution they are all intimately tied to.
Fantasy and Reality
The high point of the performance is when everyone's fantasies come to a head, and the previously ignored risers in the corner of the bare white theater are transformed into a pirate ship bound for Latvia. Here, Dr. Rupert and Nurse Whitehall can be together, Oliver can be the military commander he imagines himself to be, and Anna, Martin and Duncan's conflict is resolved in a polygamous, free-love arrangement. This sequence is both hilarious and beautifully poignant, as it depicts just how unrealistic the characters' desires really are, and that dream looms over the rest of the play as a manifestation of what their lives will never become--reality gets in the way instead.
I am not sure if I would consider Howard's play to be a sympathetic portrait of mental illness, or an unsympathetic portrait of people in general. The patients and the caretakers find themselves dealing with the exact same issues, from romantic attractions that can never be resolved as they are all confined together to the overwhelming lack of fulfillment in their lives. Yet, that doesn't stop them from hurting one another, both intentionally and accidentally.
The actors, however, all did a fantastic job portraying six believable, flawed individuals. I never knew the patients' actual diagnoses, nor did I want or need to know; what matters is the reality they live in, and how the inability to make decisions or limited faculty to express themselves hinders them from achieving their goals. The British (and in Anna's case, Latvian) accents were not perfect, but certainly better than average in the world of Americans putting on British plays.
Christopher Daftsios in particular succeeded in creating a complex and compelling character with Martin, whose limited IQ by no means prevented the audience from relating to him. Gregory James Cohan as Oliver stole the show for the first third or so of the play, with his military discipline and clearly fabricated adventure tales, but faded in interest and importance as the character spent large amounts of time on his cell phone and was not directly involved in any of the love plots.
Dana Benningfield as Anna and Andy Nogasky as Duncan were both charming in their idiosyncrasies, while Amy Lee Pearsall and Christian Ryan play morally suspect would-be adulterers with discomfiting awkwardness and emotional depth.
It is difficult at times to see where the play is actually going, and the ending is rather abrupt and unsettling, but perhaps that's the point. In a world bound by mental illness where nothing can change, even the smallest bumps in the road form huge conflicts. It is also a world in which the only obstacles the characters can find are each other, so that by the end, after the accumulation of enough small slights, I was not sure if I believed any of the characters were really in the right.
I also wish the play had done more with Latvia, both what her homeland means to Anna and the "picture ourselves in Latvia" fantasy sequence. The show firmly grounds itself in the world of England in spring 2013, with Margaret Thatcher's death and the attack on a soldier in Woolwich as reference. Yet, that sense of place does not carry to the rest of the imagined locations outside the institution, and it is difficult to picture what these people may have been like before they came here. But again, maybe that's the point.
Picture Ourselves in Latvia is at times charming, surprising, uncomfortable, hilarious and terrifying. It takes you on an emotional journey with no clear resolution, and challenges everything you may believe about mental illness and romance, both separately and together. It is an extraordinary experience, and while it's no feel-good play, it is a necessary addition to the dialogue about these issues, and a very well done one at that.
Picture Ourselves in Latvia plays for one more weekend, August 7-9, at 8pm at Access Theater. For more information, visit New Light Theater Project's website.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.