nytheatre.com review by Garry Schrader
August 11, 2008
Mental illness can be a risky topic for a playwright to take on, particularly a young, relatively inexperienced playwright. You may, for one thing, overdramatize your material with "snake-pit" histrionics and exploitation. Or you may romanticize, elevating the suffering to a spiritual state. Perhaps the biggest risk of all, dramatically, is that you lose the interest of your audience, which often tends to regard the repetitions and self-defeating behavior of the sufferer from mental illness with the same exasperation as the friends and loved ones around them. In We Three, playwright Will Goldberg has evaded these missteps and given us a play about mental illness that is full of subtlety and frequent grace; quiet snapshots that impressionistically portray both sanity and family devotion nearing the breaking point.
Amory is a young man in his 20s who cycles between relative lucidity and increasingly alarming disorientation. He wanders the streets, homeless, squatting, or imposing on the kindness of old friends who have moved on in their lives. Looking after him with dogged but increasingly frustrated devotion is his younger brother, Tommy, a high school senior. Only slightly less involved is Olivia, Amory's ex-girlfriend, who agrees, with understandable misgivings, to put him up with her—until she no longer can.
Most of the play is composed of short, understated exchanges between these characters that convey almost subliminally the powerful shifting forces of love, anger, and sacrifice in a tragic situation where there is no one to blame. Olivia has her own life and a job she is committed to; Tommy is about to graduate and leave for college, which means leaving Amory behind. One of the vital questions Goldberg is asking is: How far can—and should—we go to take care of others we love, if it means neglecting ourselves? This gives the play a relevance that will resonate for many audience members with no direct experience of mental illness.
I do think a little suspension of disbelief is required to accept Goldberg's premise. Everyone asks Amory if he's taken his medication—the answer is usually no, as its side effects make him feel like the walking dead—but no one asks him if he's seen his therapist, or gone to a local clinic, and indeed such options are never mentioned. It is as though the play says that if you have schizophrenia, your choices for treatment are powerful, sedating medications, a cold and impersonal state hospital...or your kid brother. But this is a minor bump when larger themes are so successfully engaged.
It does seem, with the appearance halfway through the play of Amory's unnamed mother—or rather his frightening vision of her—that he would have something to talk with a therapist about. Loving and rejecting, seductive and bizarre, this is the "schizophrenogenic" mother of old, when schizophrenia was believed to result from traumatically inconsistent parenting. This notion is not currently in fashion—the focus having shifted almost solely to a chemically "broken brain"—and is a somewhat jarring element in the otherwise smooth flow of events.
It is a strength of We Three that Goldberg has let Amory speak for himself, that he is not just a straw figure the others react to. Mitchell Conway conveys with quiet power Amory's intelligence, his helplessness, his shame and embarrassment at the burdens he puts on those he loves ("I don't help people at all. I'm dead weight on them")—and his selfishness and entitlement. A touching high point in both performing and writing comes as Amory tries to describe to Olivia his personal experience of his illness. He presents her with a long list of similes and approximations, knowing they don't quite suffice: "...like a trick you play on yourself...like you wrote something on your arm, and then you sweated, and pieces of it are gone...like you need to throw up in the middle of the night and there's no one there to hold you."
Ryan Emmons (Tommy), Julie Congress (Olivia), and Samantha Hooper-Hamersley (Mother) are equally strong and sensitive in their roles, and the play is smartly directed by Erin Daley.
We Three is produced by No. 11 Productions, a theater group comprised of recent Skidmore grads new to the city. From the evidence on display here, they are a company worth watching.