Cries and whispers

The Gamm finds the balance in 4:48 Psychosis
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  January 13, 2010

DIGGING DEEP Kim (with Gleadow). Photo: PETER GOLDBERG

Mental illness is a touchy subject, one that needs to be handled sensitively on stage or not at all. Take 4:48 Psychosis, by Sarah Kane, which the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre is presenting through February 7. The playwright wrote five dramas, mostly well-received, before 4:48. She never saw its 2000 premiere performance, since she committed suicide shortly after finishing it. The number in the title refers to the time in the morning when Kane tended to wake up, prompted by her lethal depression, her mind momentarily lucid.

Unusually, the script doesn't specify who is to read the lines, or even how many characters are doing so. So the play has been performed both as a monologue and with a dozen or so actors, including a chorus.

In one way or another, this is a lengthy suicide note. The question for us as prospective theatergoers is whether it comes across artfully or as just blurted.

Tony Estrella, who is directing the play, sees the play as an insightful, disturbing vision.

"There's not just the general ramblings of someone who's suffering from depression or psychosis but actually something more specific and, I hope for our audience, pretty clear," he said, speaking at the Gamm.

"As the structure starts to unearth itself, you realize how taut it is, how dense it is, how focused the writing is," he continued. "It becomes really apparent that she's written a pretty strong, solid, structural piece of theater."

The director respects how difficult it is to understand mental illness from the outside. "Because it's an invisible disease, it's really hard for us to empathize, compared with someone who comes to us with a broken arm or a heart condition."

In Estrella's rendition, 4:48 Psychosis is a conversation between a patient and her psychiatrist. Casey Seymour Kim plays the disturbed woman. When asked about the challenges of the part, sitting in the theater amidst the carpentry debris of a set under construction, she jokingly grabbed her head and shouted: "My hair! My beautiful hair!" It had been shorn short, less the product of a salon than as a child might do to herself.

But she elaborated seriously, glancing next to her at Tom Gleadow, who plays the psychiatrist. "The other day, Tom and I were talking about the balance — with my character, there has to be a balance between the depressive aspect and the psychotic. Also everything has to ring authentic. I don't want to do something that's too stagy.

"Certain things will have to have a certain style," Kim said, "because she speaks in intensely poetic language sometimes, in an attempt to articulate the psychosis. So in that respect there is a certain style, but we don't want it to come across as something so heightened as to not be accessible. You know what I mean?"

To get the role of psychiatrist right, Gleadow talked to doctors, as did Kim and Estrella. "I wanted to know how they speak," he said.

However, he didn't realize before rehearsals that the man he plays would also be filtered for the audience through the perspective of his patient. "My character is what she is telling the audience I'm like. I'm not only a doctor, I'm also how she sees doctors."

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