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Theatre in Review: Anatomy of a Suicide (Atlantic Theater Company)

Carla Gugino, Ava Briglia. Photo Ahron R. Foster.

Alice Birch's new play begins as an exercise in organized chaos, gradually arranging itself into a triptych of tragedy covering three generations of women in a single family. It's a tough, bold piece of writing that proves troubling in ways both intentional and not. It begins with Carol and John, married and desperately at odds. The first sign of trouble is the large bandages on her arms; the second is the running water, overflowing from the bathtub, that has nearly ruined the floorboards. Carol tries to wave away the entire incident ("It was just an accident") until John, losing control, all but cries out, "You took a razor and you slit your wrists, you slit up your fucking wrists, you ran a bath and you drank gin and you took pills, and you left food and you tried really fucking hard to die, Carol."

Overlapping with them is a scene featuring Anna, a rather younger woman, in a hospital ER, where Dan, a doctor acquaintance, is informing her that he is thoroughly fed up. "You came in and asked for an IV off your bud, to take the edge off your comedown," he says, referring to her obviously high state. Indeed, Anna shows classic signs of addiction, not least of which is a total sense of denial. When Dan says, "I'm not your friend," she takes offense. When he adds, "You stole from me," she insists that it was a misunderstanding. But when he says, "You fucked my fifteen-year-old brother," adding, "And you gave him drugs," she is, at long last, at a loss for words. Indeed, so far gone is she that she barely remembers her broken wrist -- which, under different circumstances, would probably have caused her extreme discomfort.

Birch next introduces Bonnie, a doctor working in an ER where she is treating Jo, who has managed to slice her hand with a fishhook. (The preponderance of wounds to the extremities is one of many faint echoes of doom rippling through the text.) Jo can't help coming on to Bonnie, who plays it ultra-cool. They end up sleeping with each other, but are soon at cross-purposes. Jo, who is all but obsessed, wants a proper relationship. Bonnie, who, off the job, has no idea what to do with other people, cuts Jo off and retreats to her family home, holing up in memories of the past -- few (if any) of which, as it happens, are happy.

What with three scenes frequently unfolding simultaneously -- Birch makes few concessions to the audience's nervous system -- it's initially hard to see where all this is going, although the dialogue is so dagger-sharp that one's attention is thoroughly gripped. Before long, however, the slightly jumbled picture comes into focus: Carol is the mother of Anna, who, fighting her way off drugs, marries and gives birth to Bonnie, an event that sends her tumbling into depression. Bonnie grows up to become a highly competent physician and an emotional basket case on the run from commitment and hostile to anyone who interrupts her solitude. (Kaye Voyce's costumes helpfully provide telling clues to the play's three time frames.) In this family, suicide and despair are handed down from generation to generation, like a bad gene.

It's a difficult, thorny narrative, one that, in its bleak determinism, could drive an audience into an advanced state of ennui. But Birch is too smart for that: By juxtaposing her three heroines -- catching them in their most unguarded moments, often in blistering confrontations -- she supplies the electric current that makes Anatomy of a Suicide feel so painfully alive. Nor does she shy away from the damage these women sometimes wreak upon their loved ones. (This, of course, is quite apart from the toxic effect of one generation on the next.) John, impotent to help his wife and daughter; Jamie, who marries and loses Anna; and the hapless Jo become experts in the heartbreak of loving someone trapped in self-misery. And, as always, Birch's way with words is both minimalist and devastating. John, alone with Bonnie, says of Carol that the family home "is the one thing I'm confident that she loved. Look. Apart from you." "We don't know that," replies Bonnie, destroying her dad's illusions in four words. Anna recalls the moment when "I started hitting on my Dad, cos he's just become this vehicle for heroin." The exchange between John and the bandaged Carol - "I'm sorry," "We took vows," "I know" -- is one of the saddest I've heard in some time.

It helps enormously that the director, Lileana Blain-Cruz, orchestrates the action so flawlessly and has put together such an excellent company. Carla Gugino -- perfectly composed and chic, cigarette permanently in hand, her eyes fixed on some unfathomable distance -- is especially striking as Carol. Celeste Arias -- tremulous, her eyes seemingly welling with tears, her lips crookedly forming a hesitant smile that is usually a sign of distress -- captures Anna's on-the-brink quality. Gabby Beans' Bonnie is, despite her brisk, businesslike manner, holding on to herself by the thinnest of threads, especially when, near the play's end, she asks her doctor for a medical procedure that is the truest measure of her despair. Richard Topol, Julian Elijah Martinez, and Jo Mei are affecting as John, Jamie, and Jo, all of them trapped in relationships that offer no hope of resolution.

So acutely and almost lovingly has Birch turned her attention on the depression that stalks Carol, Anna, and Bonnie like Winston Churchill's black dog that at times she arguably fetishizes it, to the point of making it seem oddly glamorous. The ladies dwell in a state seemingly beyond their description, yet it is clearly linked to motherhood. When John suggests having a second child, Carol responds, "I can't leave until [Anna's] grown and you want me to make another one, another fucking one, and keep me here." Anna believes that having a baby might have a centering effect, but her postpartum state is disoriented, almost catatonic, and it's all downhill from there. Bonnie wants nothing to do with children, being convinced that her mother and grandmother were driven mad by the demands of raising them.

The horror of maternity that suffuses the script is authentic and palpable, but its source is never entirely clear, and, in some crucial sense, Carol, Anna, and Bonnie remain frustratingly unknowable. To fulfill the demands of Birch's triple portrait, each of them must be frozen in her agony, unquestioning about its origins and unwilling to consider alternate ways of thinking. Compelling as they are, there is something a little too calculatedly posed about them, their unhappiness almost sacralized. This is the reason, I think, that Anatomy of a Suicide, so powerful in performance, tends to evaporate in one's mind; we are meant to be impressed by the emotional darkness that prevails, but we are not invited to question it.

With its multiple time frames and shifts in tone, Anatomy of a Suicide surely must have been a challenge to design. Mariana Sanchez's clever solution involves an open box set with only a few pieces of furniture (a bathtub, a desk) that is transformed by Jiyoun Chang's fluent lighting, which shuffles between clinical white washes and bursts of color between scenes; from time to time, the walls seemingly come alive, thanks to Hannah Wasileski's projections, but her approach is so blessedly subtle that you may not notice it at first. The sound design, by Rucyl Frison, includes a variety of well-chosen musical selections and effects like a crying baby and birdsong. (I'm not certain, but I suspect that in certain scenes the sound department maintains a vocal balance as multiple scenes unfold at once.)

Birch made a sharp impression with her previous New York production -- the icily effective Revolt. She Said. Revolt Agains -- and Anatomy of a Suicide shares her most startling qualities. By any measure, this is an original and bracing examination of the despair that, like a fog, can at any time invade anyone's soul to ravaging effect. The play ends on a slight -- very slight -- note of optimism, although how it has been attained is anyone's guess. And as for how long it will last, the playwright is, perhaps rightfully, silent. -- David Barbour

(20 February 2020)

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