Playwrights’ Center

As the title suggests, Catharsis is a play built on a psychiatrist-patient relationship, the by-now familiar territory of Equus, Agnes of God, Lady in the Dark, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Marat/Sade, Beyond Therapy, Teeth, the old Bob Newhart Show, and even, as it turns out, Patients Without Therapists.

It’s a strategy that probably deserves a rest.

The problem with psychotherapy-as-theater is that the dramatic ingredients are too easy to assemble; the formula almost writes itself. In this one-sided, inevitably conflict-ridden relationship, one character is assumed to have all the answers (though all he does is ask questions), while the other holds back secrets that, once exposed, will supposedly produce an instant breakthrough-climax. The characters’ conflicts erupt out of the basic inequality of therapy itself; the remedy, of course, is for the supposed expert to confess his or her inadequacy (if only to balance the patient’s confessions), and the patient to see he’s not alone. Push-button purgation.

Freud never guessed how theatrical the Freudian session would prove: the repression-confession situation is like catnip to playwrights eager to set up problems they haven’t bothered to dramatize. They don’t call it analysis for nothing, and playwrights should bear that in mind.

Catharsis, which is the winner of the Playwrights’ Center’s 1987 Chicago Play-Offs, is a new play by Tommy Westerfield that hopes to reinvent the formula. It pits two dramatic opposites against each other: Tim, a straight psychiatrist suffering from post-Vietnam stress, and Gabriel, an insecure young gay man who longs to accept himself but lives in Middlebrook, Illinois–a town that won’t.

Catharsis balances Gabriel’s self-exposure in psychiatric sessions with Tim’s nightmare flashbacks to Vietnam. Gabriel defiantly declares he’s so gay that, if he had a sex change, he’d come out lesbian. But his assurance soon erodes. Gabriel, who has internalized the cruelty of others, badly wants to become a “real man”–to him, a guy who can piss in a restroom sink if he has to. He admits to a “sissy” childhood–bad in sports, nervous in Scouts, inept at delivering papers (but loved dressing up as an altar boy). Now a “dead-end person in a dead-end town” and sick of the furtive sex that Middlebrook forces on gays, Gabriel is desperate to break away and meet gay men who do more than move from one quickie to the next.

“It isn’t me,” Gabriel says, “it’s those other people” who make him hate himself–like his father. The old man died four months before, but Gabriel remains his psychic victim. He recalls how the father cursed and hit him when he caught him making out with his brother. (The brother, the father assumed, didn’t really mean it, and so he was spared the Old Testament.)

Naturally enough, Gabriel is both repelled by and drawn to Bible illustrations of Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac. And Gabriel finds the sacrificial victim, stretched out nearly naked on the altar, strangely desirable. Significantly, Gabriel is named after an angel, as was his brother. The brother died in a drunk-driving accident, Gabriel’s mother killed herself a year later, and now Gabriel sees God as “cruel and insecure,” just one more authority figure to resist.

Which is what Tim is to him, too. The doctor suggests Gabriel adjust to the nongay world. “Sure,” Gabriel answers, “accept the facts–that straight people make up.” Or distort: Gabriel relates that the World War II slogan “Kilroy Was Here” was originally a code phrase for gay servicemen–until other GIs picked up on it and turned it into empty graffiti.

Tim suffers from his own dark night of the soul–from painful memories of civilians he killed in Vietnam and of a close buddy’s death in battle. We see Tim’s secrets long before Gabriel does and know they’re bound to come out in the wash. The turnabout (and most blatant transference) happens when Tim proposes a game in which whoever refuses to answer the other’s question loses. It leads to a violent exchange: “Baby killer!” “Faggot!” “I want to love men,” Gabriel screams at Tim. “You just wanted to kill them!” Tim slugs him–just as Gabriel’s dad had. The equalizing breakthrough is complete.

In this scene, Catharsis manages to get beyond analysis and force some drama out of the characters’ polarities. The dialogue, which had been glib and overwritten (“We were a nuclear family that exploded”), now shows a warmth that goes far to freshen the plot.

But up until this outburst, Catharsis suffers a near-fatal lack of momentum. Gabriel’s reason for seeking therapy is coyly concealed, and the sketchy session scenes don’t jell; each just trots out enough exposition to prepare us for the showdown.

Megan Warner’s staging accentuates the script’s general inertia. The awkward blocking (too many evenly spaced face-offs) and ceremonial pace just underline the contrived impasses and familiar characters. Only the acting defeats the labels. Andy Cook initially plays Gabriel too casually for the severe problems he is supposed to have, but he blows up well enough in the genuinely cathartic climax. John Franklin plays the shrink with palpable sincerity, and when he loses his professional cool, he does it with white-hot heat.

An actor’s exercise with a dramatic wallop, that confrontation is the play’s payoff. Catharsis finally gets beyond derivative plotting and contrived crises to provide its own clumsy therapy, a well-intentioned questioning of what’s normal. It means so well that I only wish it had more to say.