Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

Depression affects people in a variety of ways. For some, it can be a paralyzing force that saps them of the desire to see, say, or do anything.  For others, it leads to a consistent level of cynicism, a conviction that nothing good will ever happen to them, so why should they even go through the motions of trying.

One thing is for sure: Chronic depression is a toxic constant in many households. I witnessed its effects first-hand as I was growing up. It taught me that normally intelligent people can make very bad decisions because of their depression.

It also taught me how members of a family adjust their routine to accommodate the depressed party's behavior. Whether someone refuses to get dressed or uses the silent treatment as a weapon, depression is often the inspiration for family dramas.  Look at plays like The Subject Was Roses, Broadway Bound, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and 'night, Mother for models of how to craft a drama around the subject of depression.

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SFPlayhouse is currently offering the West Coast premiere of Kim Rosenstock's comedy, Tigers Be Still. Directed by Amy Glazer, most of the action takes place in a home inhabited by depressed women.
  • Sherry (Melissa Quine), who has been depressed for quite a while, is about to start a new job as an art therapist working in a local middle school. She's excited about having something to do, somewhere to go, and new people to meet.  Her mood has swung so far along the continuum from depressive to perky that if she looked up her 24-year-old ass, she'd probably find a Barbie waiting for her.
  • Grace (Rebecca Schweitzer) is Sherry's older sister who is going through a difficult breakup with her boyfriend, Troy. Grace has sunk into a combination of slovenliness and vengeful thinking common to depression. Having stolen Troy's pet chihuahuas and locked them in a closet, she's surprised that he hasn't even noticed they're missing. Her refusal to get off the couch is causing problems for Sherry, who plans to use the living room as her home office for counseling students.
  • Their mother is an unseen force who frequently calls the phone in the living room from her upstairs bedroom. Once a reasonably attractive woman, a new medication for an auto-immune disorder has triggered a 90-pound weight gain. She has refused to leave her bedroom for several months.
Sherry (Melissa Quine), Zack (Jeremy Kahn), and
Grace (Rebecca Schweitzer§ in Tigers Be Still
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

While Sherry's family is drowning its misery in estrogen, another family is grieving in a sea of confused testosterone. The recently widowed Joseph (Remi Sandri) is the school principal who has just hired Sherry. After making an announcement over the school's public address system informing everyone that a dangerous tiger has just escaped from the nearby zoo, he stresses that all physical education activities will be held indoors. Recess has been cancelled and everyone must have a buddy. Except Joseph, of course, who has a rifle...

Joseph's 18 year old son, Zack (Jeremy Kahn), has plenty to be depressed about. It was Zack who was driving the family car when he lost control and swerved, resulting in an accident that killed his mother (who was in the front passenger seat). A sullen, typically monosyllabic teenager whose mindset is fueled by sarcasm and has some severe problems with authority figures, Zack has been assigned by his father to be Sherry's teaching assistant. Barely able to communicate with his son, Joseph has also taken the liberty of scheduling Zack for private art therapy counseling sessions with Sherry. As Rosenstock's play progresses, the audience learns that:
  • Joseph took Sherry's mother to their high school prom.
  • Troy is too busy screwing another woman to care about Grace's woes.
  • Zack has a talent for getting fired from one job after another,
  • Everyone is too wrapped up in their own misery to pay any attention to the escaped tiger.
Sherry (Melissa Quine) and Zack (Jeremy Kahn) in a
scene from Tigers Be Still (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

While there are numerous good laughs along the way, Rosenstock's play feels about 15 minutes longer than  necessary. Her use of a karaoke machine (that Grace has stolen from Troy's apartment) as a narrative device is a well-intentioned gimmick that becomes clumsier than it is worth. To no one's surprise, Sherry and Zack's friendship starts to deepen while Principal Jones attempts to woo Sherry's mother from her hiding place.

Glazer's deft direction sends the comic moments out into the audience on a solid foundation. However, the most interesting character turns out to be Zack. Jeremy Kahn's understated performance hits all the right notes, providing a nice contrast to the antics of the more anxiety-prone adults in the room. Performances of Tigers Be Still continue at SFPlayhouse through July 25 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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It's not hard to find a dysfunctional Jewish family in Israel. The Roshko clan, however, deserves extra credit for its lack of communication skills.
  • Miri (Ronit Elkabetz), who teaches preschool, is having an affair with the father of one of her students. She has never recovered from the grief of giving birth to an autistic child.
  • Gidi (Tzahi Grad) is supposed to be working as a crop-dusting pilot on the moshav, but is too busy getting stoned to care about his wife's infidelity, the family's precarious finances, or meeting the deadlines for his youngest son's upcoming bar mitzvah.
  • Yoni (Yoav Rotman) is Miri and Gidi's 13 year old boy, who is terrified that his squeaky voice will never change. An exceptionally bright student (who makes extra money writing papers for his school's bullies), Yoni is having trouble learning the passage from the Torah about Noah and the flood that he is supposed to recite during his bar mitzvah. His schoolmates call him "Helium Boy," the bodybuilding supplements he's been buying don't seem to be helping and, at an age when he is theoretically supposed to become a man, Yoni is forced to tackle the parental responsibilities his weak father shuns.
  • Tomer (Michael Moshonov) is Yoni's severely autistic older brother who has just been released from a mental care facility that can no longer afford to stay in business. A 17 year old man-boy who still shits his pants, Tomer's mental state demands intense supervision on a 24/7 basis.
Michael Moshonov as the autistic Tomer

Soon to be screened at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Mabul (The Flood) shows how Tomer's release from the psychiatric hospital where he has lived for years throws the Roshko family into an even deeper crisis. At a time when all of the family's attention should be focused on caring for Tomer, Gidi is too distracted and/or stoned to function as a responsible parent.  His wife is too exhausted to continue her affair with another man. Meanwhile, the son of Miri's lover has noticed what's going on and takes his revenge on Miri's two unsuspecting boys. 

Poster art for Mabul (The Flood)

In his director's statement, Guy Nattiv writes:
"Relationships are something that you understand more and more as you get older, but my real intent in creating Mabul was to understand what parents of an autistic child go through when they discover their son is autistic or moreover, how they cope, or fail to cope, with such a complex relationship. The 'beating heart' of the film is the relationship between two brothers: one is on the verge of maturity (the bar mitzvah ceremony) and the other is trapped in eternal childhood.

I was not personally familiar with autism. None of my family members suffer from autism and until writing the script, I had never met a family with an autistic child. In order to write and direct an accurate film dealing with the subject and so as not to make embarrassing mistakes, we carried out extensive research. This included meetings with low-functioning autistic teenagers and their families. We came to understand what autism is, what it means, we learned about the subject and introduced our talented and sensitive cast to families who had been touched by autism and disbanded in the midst of such a complicated, fragile and difficult situation."

Yoni (Yoav Rotman) and Tomer (Michael Moshonov)

It's the children, rather than the adults, who walk off with the movie. As a scrawny 13-year-old, Yoav Rotman delivers a surprisingly mature portrait of a kid with far more brains than brawn. Michael Moshonov's performance as Tomer is simply heartbreaking.  Here's the trailer:

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