By Sarah Downs
Anatomy of a Suicide by Alice Birch is a startling play that tackles an unbearably painful subject. Depression has long been misunderstood, and when it drives a person to take his own life the devastation floods in all directions. In its unflinching honesty, Birch’s play dissects suffering with immaculate detail. However, despite the efforts of an excellent, skilled cast, that honesty doesn’t consistently translate into emotion that penetrates the verbal structure of the piece. A shower of verbiage rains throughout. Repetitions, overlapping lines and the sheer force of lengthy monologue bind the characters ever closer together but keep the audience oddly at bay.
The play traces the lives of three generations of women whom Fate has dealt a cruel blow, as the torch of depression passes from mother to daughter to granddaughter. Trapped in storms of emotions they don’t understand, the three women are perennially at risk of losing control. Carol, the tormented matriarch (a powerfully fragile Carla Gugino), desperately clinging to what sanity she can find has survived a serious attempt at suicide. Then she discovers she is pregnant. Here come the lies — Carol is damaged; she is selfish; she is unwomanly; the baby will ‘fix’ her — all those dreadful sexist canards that have dragged women down for centuries. Teetering under the weight of that received guilt, Gugino walks with a steady, quiet, numb energy throughout the show – a remarkable feat of stamina and focus.
As Carol’s grown daughter Anna, Celeste Arias is extraordinary. In her many gargantuan monologues she miraculously finds levels and colors that make the endless barrage of syllables bearable. She has a touch of magic about her. Anna shoulders the burden of her mother’s death, paying the grief forward to her own daughter Bonnie (Gabby Beans). Beans possesses a stillness that keeps your attention despite the long periods of time in which she stands wordlessly onstage while action, sometimes manic, takes place around her. Ironically, Bonnie is the one character who does not chatter. Hers is a slower burn. As her chipper, sometime girlfriend Jo, Jo Mei is very winning. Mei also makes a striking impression as seductive Lola, who coaxes a rare smile out of Carol.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz and Set Designer Mariana Sanchez have created an abstract world where the generations of family inhabit discrete sections of the stage. The actors effect scene changes in smooth, perfectly timed choreography, all of it glowing under Jiyoun Chang‘s dramatic, richly hued lighting. From white, clinical brightness to moody purple to ice cold green, the range of color transports us back and forth in space and time.
Blain-Cruz’s thoughtful direction builds layers of meaning, but the relentlessness of Birch’s text began to backfire. The rhythm of lightning fast line readings, redundancy and overlapping speech, while novel at the top of the show wears thin after 1 hr and 45 minutes. It traps the actors in a joyless existential game. Perhaps that is the intent, however. Perhaps the point is to create a sensory experience, to have the audience share the frustration, even desperation of these three emotionally disturbed women. Their powerlessness becomes ours. Anatomy of a Suicide is remarkable in its complexity, but I would have liked to feel it more in my heart than on my nerves.
Anatomy of a Suicide by Alice Birch; directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz;
Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company (Neil Pepe, Artistic Director; Jeffory Lawson, Managing Director). Through Sunday, March 15th, 2020 at the Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). Anatomy of a Suicide is supported by the Venturous Theater Fund of the Tides Foundation. For tickets go to Ovation Tix, Tel. 866.811.4111. Run time 1 hr. 45 minutes with no intermission.