Chicago Theatre Company

I didn’t know what to expect from this play. Something that purports to be about “three black women in a mental institution” could go several ways–comic, tragic, feminist, racial, absurdist, existential. You name it and the head house has been used as a metaphor for it.

Unfortunately, Lynda Patton’s Drink the Contents of This Vial tries to cut it all of these ways. It has an absurdist setting, a wealthy mental hospital for the “violently, criminally insane” in which three unsupervised inmates share a room decorated with cloud murals and a clock with a sweep second hand and no other. Buster is a former auto mechanic who’s in psychiatric custody because she beat her boss to death. He’d called her a girl, and Buster knows she is and has always been a man. Kitty is an heiress, incarcerated periodically by her husband for having messianic homicide fantasies. When threatened, she acts like a cat–there’s a running gag about her wanting a litter box in her corner of the room. Doc, the third patient, claims to be a psychiatrist–and she just might be, or may once have been. Except for an occasional spurt of obsessive activity, she maintains a clinical posture that offers no clue to what landed her in Whitewall Prison.

The play opens on the day that Kitty is to be evaluated by the board of physicians, who will decide whether she is well enough to be discharged. Doc advises her to play along with the board’s expectations. “Only cooperation brings freedom,” she says. “Conformity you mean! That’s death!” argues Buster, who will do anything to be discharged except admit that she’s female. Kitty clings serenely to her feline destiny: “All women want to be cats, but I am the true cat!”

What’s happening with this play? Kitty is a caricature of traditional womanhood, and Doc repeatedly declares death to all sexists–so maybe the play is a feminist argument, with Buster giving the male viewpoint. However, Doc also declares death to all racists, Kitty is married to a white man named Charlie, and Buster keeps shouting, “I wanna be free!”–so maybe it’s a comment on racial politics. Maybe it’s both, since Doc tells Buster that black men must stop putting down black women and unite with them for the sake of gaining freedom. Or maybe the play’s an analysis of the ways in which women deal with white, male power–Buster adopts it, Kitty surrenders to it, and Doc just plays the game. But then there’s a big African-Amazon fantasy a trois, in which the “rational” Doc receives an oracular prophesy while caught up in the throes of a shamanistic seizure–so maybe Patton’s play is advocating a return to the roots. By the time the story fizzles down to an existential ending so facile and contrived you can see it coming five minutes after the story begins, we are no more enlightened than when we started. Sure, we’ve been handed messages galore, but no indication which one we are to take home with us.

Director Chuck Smith is to be commended for finding a plot line somewhere in this mess, as are the actresses–it can’t be easy reciting this drivel with any kind of conviction (not to mention engaging in more hand-to-hand combat than in a slam-dance contest). Celene Evans plays Buster with a nice West Side Story scrappiness. Though it’s not supposed to be a drag act, she also has her masculine mannerisms down perfectly. Wandachristine, as Kitty, has apparently decided that crazy-lady parts can’t possibly be played too melodramatically and declaims her role with a coloratura bombast that should win her a Jeff nomination. Veteran character actress Audrey Morgan does what she can with the choruslike Doc, but the playwright has given her too little to work with, and the performance never really rises above the usual Battling-Sister-Bertha cliches. Patrick Kerwin’s obligatory surrealistic set stays out of the way of the acting, but his attempts at psychedelic lighting effects should either be more complex or scrapped altogether–when those African gods talk to Doc, we should see fireworks. Sound designer and technician Corbiere T. Boynes fares better with some well-timed space music.

Drink the Contents of This Vial tries to say everything to everybody and winds up as little more than A Coupla Crazy Chicks Sittin’ Around Talkin’, though black feminists might find a rallying slogan or two amid the verbiage. It’s a virtuoso exercise for three immensely talented actresses, however, all of whom I look forward to seeing in something more deserving of their skills.