nytheatre.com review by Avery Pearson
December 3, 2010
Rarely does a new play from a young writer remind us why we go to the theatre: to be entertained in taking a look in the mirror. Even less seldom does that playwright write with such profound understanding of the human condition that the mirror becomes a tool to indulge in a healthy self-awareness. The act of suicide is commonly referred to as the most selfish action one can take in relation to family and loved ones. But what happens when your only loved one is a dead twin and your family is disconnected? Recently, I was fortunate to see Artistic New Directions' excellent production of Jennifer Lane's revelatory play Psychomachia. (The show's title comes from the Greek: "the struggle between spirit and flesh, the struggle of the soul, the battle between vice and virtue.") In examining the act of suicide, Lane steadfastly challenges its taboo nature and asks the audience to question what they know to be true. Be warned: This play is not for the faint-of-heart and mind; this play is for the inquisitive soul.
Psychomachia oozes the tense familial dramatics that dysfunction indulges. We are exposed to the infinitely profound bond between twins, a drunken absent-minded mother, a father fighting to keep things together, and the third-wheel sister who is all too normal. Jennifer Laine Williams plays the Barbie-doll sister Lottie with breadth of human experience and control of the character; she is illuminating in a role that could have been lost by a lesser actor. The crux of our story revolves around lonely twin Lydia as she deals with the death of her twin brother Johny. Ashlie Atkinson as Lydia navigates the roller-coaster ride that Lane constructs with vitality, vigor, and the vulnerability that only the finest thespians hold. Lydia and Johny were inseparable twins, yet along their journey Johny (played impressively with seductive glee by Kyle Groff) became uber-fascinated with the afterlife, numerical prophecy, and the potential for growth from human to angelic form. He became mystified by a mental daemon that convinced him to commit suicide. This occurs prior to our play's commencement and forever affects the trajectory of our family in question. The family had rocky relations to start, but in Johny's suicide, "...everything already came apart ... now they're just scattering the pieces." Johny's death has a traumatic effect on his twin sister Lydia. Her struggle is in dealing with the loss of her twin while moving forward with new love. John Calvin Kelly plays Ezra, the bookish, persistent and warm-hearted boyfriend, with passion and empathy. In one brilliant scene where Kelly reveals Ezra's childhood strife, the audience at the show I saw was profoundly shaken; applauding with conviction at scene break.
Without giving away the shocking twists and turns that Lane skillfully provides, we are thrown for loop after loop while Lydia comes to grips with her own mortality by the visitation of her dead twin. With use of flashback and -forward, we begin to understand how and why Johny ended his life and how such a thing can happen to someone who is so intrinsically connected to another. Lane's script, most surely, takes us on an experiential journey where, with an open heart, we can come closer to ourselves by learning of the pain in others. Please be aware that Lane examines themes that can be very touchy if they are too close to home.
However, the nature of theatre is to discuss the taboo and it was with the sure-handed vision of director/designer Robin A. Paterson that the environment and candor of a family death story can come to life. The stage is set to make us feel as though we are right there in the shit with this formidable family. Paterson's beautifully ethereal projection work highlights the psychosis of Johny's sordid journal and gave us permission to enter the mind of a killer—lest we forget the capabilities and depth of human expression. The configuration of the broad Theatre 54 stage places us in the fish bowl of familial combat. It is with this effort that the intense themes and topics of Psychomachia can be readily accessed. Concurrently, a director's strength appears in casting, and the production is blessed with the heartfelt and profound performances of the family's parents in Cynthia Mace and Frank Deal.
Jennifer Lane's Psychomachia is a must-see; it has the mark of an intelligent and thoughtful writer providing a new definition for American theatre. This is your opportunity to see a new playwright who asks the tough questions, you'll find your own answers.