Shariba Rivers, Dave Belden, and Susie Griffith in Breathe With Me Credit: Mali Anderson

Erasing the Distance, the 12-year-old theater collective that aims to “disarm” the stigma around mental illness, regularly creates two kinds of magic. First, the ensemble concoct eloquent, harrowing scripts from verbatim interviews with people experiencing mental illness, scripts as artful and insightful as any created by well-pedigreed playwrights. Second, they find actors who perform these texts with such grace, candor, and passion it’s difficult to believe they’re acting at all. It’s hard to find more theatrical immediacy on any stage.

Much of this magic is on display in Sparkfest, the company’s first festival of new works, although in one of the three pieces running in repertory, that spark is largely absent.
The Lies We Tell, devised by Mariana Green, Charlotte Drover, and Adam Poss, typifies the company’s magical work. It focuses on thirtysomething Chris, a high-functioning addict, loaded from the age of 12, barreling destructively through life in maelstrom of lies. As performed by the mercurial Josh Odor, Chris is a fascinating, aggravating figure whose superficial frankness masks a tangle of evasions, elisions, and contradictions. “It was fun,” he says of a particularly manic phase. “It was supposed to be fun. It wasn’t fun, actually. It was torture.” Odor’s performance turns the “typical addict” into a heartbreaking tragic figure.

On the other end of the magic spectrum is Stacy Stoltz‘s Walk a Mile, in which Stoltz performs interviews she conducted with her father, mother, and stepmother about their “formative stories”: family deaths, wartime trauma, alcoholism. While the stories are often compelling, they’re just as often excessively discursive, and Stoltz and director Matt Hawkins struggle to keep the show headed in a discernible direction. Moreover, the bulk of the stories have little to do with experiencing mental illness. In another festival, the piece might make more sense.

One might argue that the enthralling Breathe With Me, devised by Millie Hurley and Maura Kidwell, also belongs in a different festival. It interweaves the monologues of three caregivers: Olive, a “relocation designer” who helps debilitated seniors create homelike environments as they move to assisted living; Avery, a nurse in a pediatric ICU; and Sam, a nonprofessional caretaker tending to his dying father. Through carefully observed stories (Avery lies alongside a terminal child and simply stares deeply into her eyes) we experience the emotional and psychological toll the long-term caretaker suffers. While it’s problematic to place such understandably trying experiences in the context of mental illness, the exquisite performances by Dave Belden, Susie Griffith, and Shariba Rivers make this piece, ironically, the festival’s highlight.  v