New City Theatre has operated with an independent, non-commercial and non-institutional model as an artist-centered and artist-run professional theatre since 1982. Founding artistic director John Kazanjian is a serious, experienced and accomplished theatre artist dedicated to bringing original, authentic work to an audience more interested in progressive, cutting-edge theatrical expression than in mindless entertainment or conventional “well-made” plays. He also believes that actors do not work for a theater, they are the theater. His collaboration and direction of “Sick” is a perfect example of how all those values are put into practice.
Elizabeth Kenny uses “Sick” to share her powerfully affecting story of a journey through the hell of psychotropic medications, inept medical treatment, the disintegration of her personal life and the loss of her grasp on reality. While particular to her own life and relationships, it is also universal to anyone suffering from mental illness, or the mental illness treatment industry, and a matter that should be of concern to us all.
This is not a self-indulgent confessional nor the sort of autobiographical solo show that has become far too common in the past decade. It is, in a strikingly informal and personal way, an invitation to share time in an intimate space with this woman as she opens windows on her own harrowing experience, but also on an experience much more common than we might expect. It is also a critical appraisal of medical/pharmaceutical practices that injure many, many people. It does not so much ask questions about our current approach to mental illness (and the drugs with which we “treat” it) as it calls on us to ask those questions. By keeping the focus on one unique experience she raises much larger and more universal concerns.
Using Tina Kunz Rowley as an “accompanist” Kenny does not so much relate her story as she revisits it, moving back to that history in a way more reminiscent of pure memory than structured narrative. Rowley sits at a table on the side of the minimal stage setting and reads “cues” that are actually just single words to suggest episodes or emotional landmarks in Kenny's history. From that, Kenny revisits the connection between the word and the event. The order of the cards is not pre-determined, nor is the actual text we hear. As a result, it never feels like a constructed script. Although she has certainly built the structure and content of each of her segments, the language feels conversational and spontaneous, not composed. That allows an intimacy and an honesty that constantly reinforces that this is a communication between human beings, not simply an actor and an audience.
Kunz Rowley also has a bell which she rings when she thinks the episode is complete, or has gone on too long, or become meandering or irrelevant. Kunz Rowley has a very significant role in this performance, and one which it is easy to underestimate. In addition to having an almost tangible emotional connection with Kenny, she also becomes a kind of surrogate self-control curiously like the psychiatric professionals who treated Kenny, but without the impersonal distance of the medical establishment and its judgmental “knowledge”. Watching Kenny as she responds to the bell clanging at the height of an emotional moment, glancing toward Rowley with a look that says, “I know, but...” and then either returning to her chair to await the next prompt or going on to finish something that is too important to be silenced, we are allowed an intimacy and immediacy that make us feel like the same kind of friend and support for Kenny that Rowley is.
Elizabeth Kenny's personal journey from a common medical condition through her introduction to a popular antidepressant drug to ever more powerful antianxiety, antipsychotic and anticonvulsant drugs and ultimately to psychiatric hospitalization for psychosis is plenty scary enough. That she was “cured” by simply weaning her off of all those medications is even more frightening. Because this is a life and not simply the re-telling of an event, there are many details and detours through her social and familial relationships, as well as the frightening transit with her persistent internal voices, doubts and demons. The fracturing of the narrative is perfect for the fracturing of the personality she endured.
Having worked in State mental hospitals for nearly thirty years myself, I can say that the mental health system has only the spottiest success in treating the majority of chronic mental illness. The admonishment to physicians to first “do no harm” applies nowhere as directly as in mental health care, in my opinion. We know so very little about how the human mind works, and why it stops working, that in the end it seems to me the truest path back to stability is through immediate and direct human connection, not medication.
That we, as a society, need to do some serious investigation of how corporate, commercial pharmaceutical interests, political corruption, medical self-gratification and institutional self-interest apply to the “treatment” with drugs of an ever larger portion of society is a major question asked by this show. It is not asked in an editorial way, but by taking us into one woman's experience and showing us how easily that could have been our own experience.
Elizabeth Kenny performs this show, but she is not acting. There is the language with which she conveys the text, but there is not a script recited word for word for every performance. We are in a stage environment but it is populated by human beings (including us) trying to understand one another, not by fictional characters enacting a story. Her story is personal but it is not unique, not any sort of “tell all”. “Sick” is an opportunity to connect on the most intimate level with another human being. “Sick” is the healthiest and most genuine kind of theater.