4.48 Psychosis


at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis is a play about power: the power to define, the power to control, the power to make people confront something terrifying–like this work, especially in the Hypocrites’ unremittingly intense production. Essentially a three-character piece with an additional three performers in Grand Guignol makeup commenting on the action, 4.48 Psychosis focuses on the struggle between a woman and her psychiatrist over who gets to define the woman’s overwhelming despair. Is it an illness or simply another take on what it means to be human? The outcome determines what’s to be done, whether the depression is to be palliated or “cured” with medication, or accepted as the individual’s prerogative.

Is the contemporary view that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance any more accurate than the turn-of-the-century notion that “neurasthenia” was best treated by imposing silence, isolation, and bed rest on the mostly upper-class women it affected? Both courses of treatment reflect or reflected societal ideas of the “normal”; both are or were well-meaning attempts to relieve suffering. But it’s possible both are wrong.

Diagnosis can define an “abnormal” person out of authentic existence. And yet “psychosis” is not a word Kane, or anyone else, would use lightly. It’s not beside the point that she wrote this play just months before she hung herself at age 28. It’s hard to accept that suicide could have been the only way to express her authenticity. What sort of self, the essential self she was trying to save, requires its own destruction?

Every aspect of 4.48 Psychosis is a challenge. Early on Kane has the protagonist say, “People may think this self-indulgent.” And there are points in her hour-long howl of anguish when you’re thinking, Get over yourself! When she refuses to answer her psychiatrist’s questions, the audience can easily become as enraged as the doctor. The play’s style of presentation is also a power trip: director Sean Graney requires the audience to stand or walk throughout the piece, following the action around the space, which is surrounded by curtains as if everyone were on a proscenium stage. You’re obliged to participate instead of being permitted to sit back and observe. There are even two unexplained interruptions of the action when a narrator intones, “This is not part of the play,” and the actors break character and greet us with smiles and winks and offer tangerine sections. No wonder the audience laughs when midway through a costume change, imposed on her by other cast members, the protagonist complains, “I feel like I’m being manipulated.” We know just the feeling.

Inevitably this manipulation–this assertion of dominance–excites some resistance. Standing becomes uncomfortable before the hour is through, and you wonder why you have to do it. You wonder why this egregiously crazy human being can’t or won’t get help, and indeed rejects the very notion of help for the crisis of meaning that afflicts her. You acknowledge that misery loves company but sort of wish you hadn’t been invited over for the evening. In contrast to Kane’s Crave (currently on view in a superb production by the Side Project), the characters don’t engage in lengthy confrontations with one another–instead nearly all the ferocity is directed at the audience. Audience members bounce all that anger right back at the stage and long for an opportunity to smack its central inhabitant upside the head.

Stacy Stoltz takes what could have been a one-note part and turns it into an aria of despair and rage. Her brilliant portrayal of the protagonist draws us into her world, in which her lover sleeps through her storms of desperate need, her psychiatrist is cold and distant, and her every move is shadowed by the three women, whose fairy-tale costumes with immense fanned-out collars seem to have come straight from John Tenniel’s drawings of the evil Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Before Graney’s allusion has had time to register, Kane throws in a reference to Kafka and another to T.S. Eliot, piling up the intellectual supports for her argument that the source of madness has long been disputed. Is it the individual or the society? The answer is yes.

Graney’s deliberately strange staging is pitch-perfect, displaying the Hypocrites’ trademark refusal to flinch at onstage action other troupes might omit or gloss over. Just as at the end of Machinal the company threw an electrocution in the audience’s face, here it tackles first a hanging, then a drowning at the very end. The sense of jeopardy is so real, particularly with the drowning, that you want to come to the rescue: just standing there seems to show a terrible complicity in the abuse of power. As it is the play’s action isn’t over until an actor asks, “Will you open the curtains, please?” and the lights come down in time for Stoltz to abandon the part she’s playing and live.

The actor’s call to open the curtains is a weird way to end the play, clearly anticipated by Graney’s set design: conclusions in theater usually involve closing the curtains. That difference alone–that disruption of audience expectations and unconscious certainties–encapsulates the thoughtful, painful way he uses his own power to enhance Kane’s points about where power resides.

When: Through 12/18: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 and 7 PM

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted

Price: $15

Info: 312-335-1650

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Margaret K. Lakin.