Playwrights’ Center

A blocked memory of a childhood wrong festers; the repressed pain won’t let a hurt life heal or grow. Survival is just endurance, uncluttered by hope and untouched by love. But sometimes a therapeutic breakthrough snaps the spell, the kind of purging confession that, not incidentally, makes powerful drama.

The one-act Survivors, a Playwrights’ Center premiere by local writer L.A. Ross, works almost as well as therapy as it does as theater. Indeed, given its sensitivity to the ugly subject of child sexual abuse, it seems futile to make a distinction.

The setting is a therapist’s office in 1986; the real locale is the mind of Billie, a victim of incest. Terrified of what she can’t face (“It’s all my fault”), Billie suffers from headaches, insomnia, and unprocessed anger. Not knowing why, she alienates her friends, resenting their easy happiness. She hates being touched, loathes men and sex (“They get angry and fuck”). The thought of marriage repels her (“I can’t mate in captivity”). Bitterly she contrasts her life to the movies, where no one ever suffers alone and no pain is ever pointless. Her job, as an editor of a journal on sanitation engineering, seems irrelevant. She eerily describes going to a zoo’s primate house: seeing the drooping, sore dugs of the female monkeys, she wonders, what male rage to destroy did this to them–and to her?

In active denial, Billie writhes in her easy chair and rails as an unseen therapist tells her anger isn’t enough–she must get beyond it to its source. Hesitantly, then compulsively, she begins to talk about her father, a pillar of the church who managed to become a seducer of Billie’s friends, of baby-sitters, of maids, of boys–or so Billie says, leaving us unsure whether to believe her or not. (To both daughter and father the mother seems irrelevant.)

To portray Billie’s fractured psyche, Ross splits it into two personae who suggest the being she was before the incest. They feel aloud what the patient wants to say. As ugly memories return, the two personae seek shelter in sensual, unthreatening recollections of nature and the seasons, in music (Billie imagines her body as an instrument only she can play), and in fantasies of renewal (gentle fondling and bisexual love). She pleads, “Hold me–together.”

In these concentrated, cumulatively decisive sessions, a scared Billie gradually approaches the abuse she’s never mentioned. The inevitable final revelation is still fairly impressive; Billie wasn’t ready for it, but we are, sensing the good it will do her as well as her agony in remembering.

The description of the violation is searing and specific, down to the moment of Billie’s merciful unconsciousness. But now Billie can begin to think once more of playing her viola, a sign of recovery.

Like Brian Kirst’s 1991 Perished (a more poetically abstract treatment of the same subject), Survivors goes beyond story telling to let other survivors know they’re not alone. (That urgency excuses the occasional repetition, stock defensiveness, and overwriting.) Raw and rewarding, George Tafelski’s staging is as compassionate as it is painful.

An LA actress who recently moved to Chicago (and who bears a rather LA-like name), Dado is stunning at shaping Billie’s pain into healing. The incest memory, described as it hits every sense, is no distant event–excruciatingly immediate, it happens all over, though it can never hurt as much again.

Melissa Reeves’s persona (Billie’s younger, innocent voice) is difficult to watch, because she shows who Billie was and will never be again–a trusting human. Kimberly Furst’s Billie is the trapped artist within, the part we hope will transform the pain. Both offer a whole new kind of theatrical/therapeutic support.

Like Billie herself, Survivors might have succumbed to its rage and reveled in misandry. Instead it uses its intimacy to embrace, not attack–a form of therapy in itself.