Were Betty Friedan and H.P. Lovecraft to have a baby, Pallas Theatre Collective’s new musical, might be their demented offspring. The show (with music by Sarah Taylor Ellis, book and lyrics by Lane Williamson) tells the story of a woman known only as “wife” (Ty Hallmark) who is confined to a single room due to a hazily explained “medical condition.” Director Tracey Elaine Chessum beckons the audience to follow the “wife” as she becomes increasingly fixated on the titular wallpaper, and eventually descends into madness. As a new musical and with a tricky balance to strike between love story and horror story, The Yellow Wallpaper has some flaws, but it succeeds in creating an unusual and visually compelling work that sheds light on an important piece of feminist literary history.
Based on an 1892 short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper has historically been viewed as a proto-feminist text that laid the groundwork for the likes of Sylvia Plath and Simone de Beauvoir. The “domestic prison” trope, especially in vogue during the Bra-burning Era of yesteryear, may seem a bit tired today, but in the Victorian era of corsets and morphine tonics, domestic female imprisonment was all too relevant. As the increasingly tortured “wife”, Ty Hallmark gives a committed performance that demonstrates the frustration of physical and psychological confinement. It is painful to watch as her chirpy sister-in-law, played by Caroline Brent, assures her that all is well. Likewise, the “wife’s” husband, a medical doctor named John (Justin Calhoun) insists that he knows what’s best for his beloved, which in this case involves trapping her in a bedroom while he and his sister vacation downstairs.
Sarah Taylor Ellis’ music is meant to evoke the “wife’s” insanity with its unstable and often discordant melodies. Although this does indeed provide an unbalanced effect, it also results in a rather jarring score that is not always pleasant to listen to. I question whether the same schizophrenic musical effect could be attained while maintaining a more palatable sound. However, the sound design by Kevin O’Connell is a highly successful (and creepy) underscore that layers the sounds of scratching or tearing on top of deep, ominous tones. Likewise, the lighting design by Jason Aufdem-Brinke creates a surreal and engaging visual effect, with garish yellows contrasting with demonic violets. This, together with a solid minimal set and projection design by Marc McLain, creates a show with an impressive visual impact. The whole design team, along with Director Tracey Elaine Chessum, deserves credit for utilizing the tiny black box space well.
Chessum also made smart staging choices, moving her actors with enough frequency and variety that the single-set show never devolved into two folks sitting on a bed, chatting. There was a kinetic energy to the staging that defied the small space and offered a window into the “wife’s” feverish mind. However, the dynamic pace of the physical staging was not matched by the text itself, which moved too slowly to be consistently engaging. The fact is, nothing much happens in the show. Time passes and the “wife’s” tortuous confinement wears on her, but it is difficult to show time passing on stage without, well, passing some time.
The Yellow Wallpaper is, at its core, the story of one woman’s internal psychological torment, which may very well be able to fill pages of prose, but is difficult to express physically on stage. In the final minutes of the show, there is a genuine atmosphere of frantic instability, and it is during these moments that the show is strongest. And so, although there is much room for growth in Pallas’ new musical, I certainly came home looking at my own bedroom walls with just a little more scrutiny.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
The Yellow Wallpaper plays through July 6, 2014 at the Anacostia Arts Center -1231 Good Hope Road SE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (301)-909-TIXS, or purchase them online.