Victory Gardens Theater

By turns sad and funny, satiric and moving, Alan Ayckbourn’s intelligent British comedy Woman in Mind charts, without sentimentality or heartless irony, a frowsy middle-aged Englishwoman’s hopeless descent into psychosis.

Conked on the head with a rake, Susan awakens to find her doctor kneeling next to her, speaking a language she can’t understand: “Score grounds appeal cumquat doggy Martha hat sick on the bed.” Neither can we, for that matter, for Ayckbourn’s proclaimed goal in writing Woman in Mind was “to write a first-person narrative, a play seen like a film through the lens of a hand-held camera.” The result being that in a very real sense we are as trapped as Susan is in her mind, able to perceive only what Susan perceives. So that when the doctor says, “Susan, Susan. I speak English,” we, like Susan, only hear “Choose ‘un, choose ‘un. Pea squeak Jinglish.”

Luckily, this annoyingly Joycean symptom clears quickly, only to be replaced by a second more persistent one: Susan begins to have periodic hallucinations, which we also see. Married to a stodgy, selfish, and bullying vicar named Gerald, she dreams she has another younger, wealthier, more handsome husband named Andy. And instead of having a “cranky” son (who belongs to a weird religious cult that won’t let him speak to his parents) Susan believes she has a delightful, dutiful daughter who cares about Susan’s well-being almost as much as Andy.

Similarly, her small suburban home, with its tiny garden and restricted horizons, becomes in her mind’s eye a large country estate complete with tennis courts, a large lake, and an impressive front gate ten miles from the manor house. Her hallucinations are clearly wish fulfillment of a sort for a woman who has lived too long a life she hates.

So strong is her distaste for her life that when her doctor tries to deny the reality of her hallucinations by telling her what he sees around them–the small garden, the simple suburban house–she comments sadly, “You’re describing someplace I wouldn’t choose to live in, even in my wildest nightmares.” The point, of course, is that Susan never chose what kind of life she wanted to live, she just let it happen to her.

In time Susan’s hallucinations diminish in intensity, and Susan reenters–partially at least–the real world, only to find it as bitterly disappointing as before. Her Gerald remains as pedantic as ever, spending all his free time grinding out a mere 60-page history of his parish since 1386. “Actually,” Susan snaps, “Gerald’s been working on it since 1386.” Later she adds, in a moment of lucidity, “When I think what he and I could have achieved with our lives if he hadn’t insisted on discussing everything first.”

She finds no solace in her widowed sister-in-law, Muriel, a harsh and unsympathetic woman who resents having to do housework while Susan is ill. Muriel has perfected the passive- aggressive art of botching simple meals; her omelettes aux fine herbes, featuring Earl Grey tea, send everyone running for the bathroom. And when Susan’s son Rick returns with news that he has left the cult, has married a woman he’s embarrassed to bring home, and will soon be off to live in Thailand with her, the pressure proves too much.

The hallucinations, which had never completely gone away, return with a vengeance. One of the figments of Susan’s imagination–her dream brother Tony–seems to have killed the neighbor’s dog and threatens to do the same to Gerald.

As the hallucinations turn from charming to frightening, Ayckbourn makes clear that he has no interest in repeating the patronizing and trite argument from Man of La Mancha–that perhaps Susan is happier with her illusions. Susan’s hallucinations are dangerous compensation for a life of quiet desperation–especially when we see how terrified and alone she really is once her hallucinated world has swallowed her whole: “Oh, God! Where am I? Where have I gone?”

The seriousness of Ayckbourn’s themes never threatens the essential comedy of this witty play. Although the laughs are concentrated in the first three-quarters of the play, even the climactic hallucination near the play’s end–when Susan’s fantasy family and her real one mix in a wildly surreal Mad Hatter’s party–is funny in a deeply disturbing way.

There are hundreds of ways to screw up a comedy, even one as well written as this. Happily, director Sandy Shinner avoids all of them. The pace of the show is just about perfect, and Shinner does a great job of balancing Susan’s real world with her fantasy one.

The eight-member cast performed the sometimes difficult text well, although only Mary Macdonald Kerr (as Susan’s fantasy daughter, Lucy) was able to maintain a believable British accent. The rest of the cast slipped in and out of their accents.

Caitlin Hart was quite good as Susan, capable of winning the audience’s sympathy and empathy. Equally good at being unsympathetic were Roger Mueller as her hidebound husband, Gerald, and Sharon Phillips as Susan’s ill-tempered sister-in-law. Patrick Clear, Bruce Barsanti, and Kerr are quite charming as Susan’s hallucinated family. Kerr in particular really shines. The real scene-stealer had to be Peter Van Wagner, whose portrayal of the ever-bumbling doctor Bill Windsor–a man “eager to reassure, quick to apologize”–was hilarious from first to last.

However good the cast may be–and they are quite good–it is Alan Ayckbourn’s wonderful, touching play that really carries the evening.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.