I first saw Johnna Adams’s World Builders this summer, when it premiered at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I was immediately struck by the ingenuity of its premise and the artistic and creative implications of its design.
Seeing it again, now by Forum Theatre and performed at Woolly Mammoth’s rehearsal room, the play’s imaginative fierceness is no less palpable.
Whitney and Max, two people with schizoid personality disorders, meet during a clinical drug trial. Each is defined by his/her proclivity to develop elaborate inner worlds. As the drug dissolves their obsessions with their own subjectivity, Max falls in love with Whitney, which terrifies her even as it piques her own love for him: hence the story’s conflict, the characters’ love or obsession for their personal subjective realities versus their love for the other.
Unfortunately, whereas the original Shepherdstown production maintained a delicate balance between the functional and the dysfunctional, the real and the mythic, Forum’s production stumbles into a kind of comic malfunction, a malfunction rooted in the severity of the characters’ psychological conditions. As a result, the show left me laughing at the characters’ attempts at intimacy but no longer believing that these people might be capable of living in the world without psychiatric intervention.
In an interview with playwright Adams given this summer, she describes perfectly the script’s guiding questions: “Is mental illness really so bad? At what point is mental illness productive or even superior to normal interactions in the world?”
Her script explores those profoundly challenging questions even as it opens a vista on what the playwright calls “the process of poetry in the realms of the vast and the miniature.” Inspired by literary critic Gaston Bachelard’s aesthetics of poetic revelry, Adams created Whitney, the creator of epics, and Max, the creator of single cell dwellings. The reverie that each character makes manifest gives the play its metaphoric dimension, a dimension inhabited by art and society, love and perception. This production does not give space to the script’s metaphoric truth.
Laura C. Harris and Daniel Corey tackle Whitney’s immensity and Max’s world drawn small, respectively.
Ms. Harris’s Whitney is a woman in love with her imaginary, self-constructed universe, so much so that, seemingly in her entire 20 something years of existence, she has never engaged another (actual) human being in simple, honest dialogue.
Over the 42-day drug trial, her Whitney transforms from a young woman with an encyclopedically mythic world constructed in her head, who is all hyper-intensity, fragmented staccato, robotic delivery, and frequent invasions of personal space, to a woman who can actually look Max in the eyes and tell him she loves him.
Mr. Corey’s Max is a man in deep trauma, haunted by an inward, living nightmare where the women he has casually seen, and taken notice of, are virtually transported to a underground bunker where they await their death, not by Max but by an unseen perpetrator. Max, for his part, can do nothing but grimly watch over them and observe their agonizing loneliness and demise.
Over his 42 days, we watch the emergence of a man out of that nightmare and into a world where the possibilities of a true encounter with another human being are realized. Corey’s performance is brilliantly realized, his rebirth and the internal agony that comes to the surface, as he metaphorically takes his first breaths, is riveting.
Produced in Woolly’s rehearsal room, Director Amber McGinnis Jackson has chosen an in-the-round staging. The intimacy is two-edged. On the one hand, the play’s clinical setting is enhanced as we observe the two patients as if behind one-way glass. On the other hand, there is no glass, i.e., no distance between the audience and the painfully awkward. This was particularly evident early on when Whitney’s overly aggressive outreach to Max was difficult to endure.
Set Designer Debra Kim Sivigny handled the arena staging well, specifically with her inclusion of two circular couches, orange and blue and split down the middle. Sivigny handled the costumes whereas Mary Keegan did lights and Thomas Sowers added the sound, each finding moments to heighten the speculative mood.
This production of World Builders is all about the script and the acting, however. We engage in the shifting internal dynamics of both characters and the resulting changes in the external relationship between them.
We want to believe in their fairytale romance. We want to believe that somehow love in the real world can co-exist with a love of the fantastical worlds brewing in inner space.
Fortunately, such is the magic of theatre.
This production of World Builders, however, does not provide enough of that magic and, instead creating a delightfully ironic revelry on the marriage of imagination and love, taking place in a mythic space where metaphor and reality merge, we are left with an eerie grimness as we contemplate a romanticized glimpse into mental illness where sadly only tragedy awaits.
Running Time: Approximately One hour and 50 minutes, without an intermission.
World Builders plays through November, 21, 2015 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Rehearsal Room – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. . For tickets, call Forum’s box office at (301) 588-8279, or purchase them online. Pay What You Want tickets are available at every performance on a first-come, first-serve basis starting one hour before each performance.