Having a mental illness is like carrying an invisible weight every single moment of every single day. Except when it feels like flying.
The Walls, opening Feb. 16 at The 5 & Dime, a theatre company, takes an uncomfortable yet occasionally beautiful look at the shape and implications of filial duty—as those duties relate to a parent’s madness. Playwright Lisa Dillman based the play on Jeffrey Geller’s 1995 book, Voices Behind the Walls: Women of the Asylum 1840-1845, a collection of stories about “mad” women in mental asylums. Women who were often caged in those hellholes by men in their families because their behavior differed from the norm of the day. Sometimes, they were put away simply for disagreeing with the men.
“The 5 & Dime is really committed to stories that are interesting, stories that have importance and spark interesting discussions in the community. So when you have a play about mental health, especially in women, it’s such an interesting conversation for this theater company to have with our community at this time,” said director (and Douglas Anderson grad), Bradley Akers.
“I met the playwright when I was in school [in 2012] and since then, I’ve had it on my mind. It’s a story I’ve always wanted to explore,” explained Akers, of his choice to mount the drama.
He went on to say that he thinks it is important “at this time in America” to mount incredibly challenging works—for artists personally as well as their audiences, because it’s a way of learning more deeply about oneself “through the world.”
In the play, the main character Carrie uses the history of her relationship with her bipolar mother as springboard for research into the herstory of other mentally ill women. She researches various horrifying ways the ill have been treated; specifically, the trajectory of mentally ill women who were forced into asylums against their will.
In the 19th century, the diagnosis of “female hysteria” was often given to women suffering from depression, nervousness, sexual urges and the hard-to-pin-down “tendency to cause trouble.” Though that catchall diagnosis is no longer bestowed, the practice of patronizing thinking lingers in popular culture. Recall: Missouri Republican senatorial candidate Courtland Sykes recently posted a screed that presented his fiancée as the perfect home-cooked “dinner at six” kind of feminist.
Certainly, if one partner makes a willing choice to so, then focusing on homemaking and domestic duties is fine.
However, it was the societally and legally codified rules around what women could and couldn’t do that in some cases would amplify existing tendencies toward mental illness. In others, it was a chemical imbalance in the brain. But in many cases, before medicines and actual diagnoses, female patients who’d be deemed “hysterical” were treated with “pelvic massage,” because orgasm was believed to relieve those “troublemaking” tendencies. Though the American Psychiatric Association dropped the “hysterical” diagnosis 1952, the implications of this dismissive and centuries-old approach to female personhood and agency persist.
It’s a question of “how far we have come … or are we still doing these things from the 1920s and just masking it a little more?” Akers rhetorically asked.
Throughout Walls, vignettes of the women Carrie is studying punctuate her story; so in reality, we see multiple stories within a story. This process serves to highlight the ongoing problem of mental illness within a society that doesn’t want to deal with it, or carry the burden of its own culpability. “This play specifically illustrates [the cycle of care] with the mother as she goes through the admittance, leveling out and discharge, and then having to do it again. There’s no real help; it’s just cycling through,” said Akers.
In addition to the historical implications embedded in the play, there’s the reality of Florida’s care for the mentally ill. Our state is ranked 51st—after 49 states and Washington, D.C.—in terms of healthcare funding that’s $36.05 per capita. So the idea of the revolving door cycle has tangible purchase. Now, in the wake of #metoo and seemingly daily revelations about Grand Commander Marmalade (Trump) and the inappropriate and unappealing sexual behavior of other very wealthy and powerful men (hey, Harvey Weinstein, hey, Steve Wynn), a deeper discussion around female mental health is certainly warranted.
“The playwright expressed that she wanted to explore the moment we have a sudden loss of control, especially when it is forced upon us,” explained Akers. “That sudden loss of control is frightening,” even more so when support systems are patch-jobs at best and so hard to access.
The Walls opens 8 p.m. Feb. 16 and runs through March 3 at The 5 & Dime, a theatre company, Downtown, $17 online advance, $25 at door, the5anddime.org.