Monday, February 27, 2012

Silent Nights, Lonely Nights

Silent diseases are defined as those which produce no clinically obvious signs or symptoms. From high blood pressure to chlamydia, from gluten enteropathy to periodontitis, patients can go for years without being diagnosed.

Silent diseases perform slow, steady, and insidiously erosive stealth attacks on a person's autoimmune system. Some may be linked to other diseases or their diagnosis may be masked by a similarity to some other disease's symptoms.

Like AIDS, depression knows no boundaries. It can strike people at any age, within any ethnic group, and will not be prevented by a person's wealth, gender, religion, political beliefs, or sexual orientation. When depression paralyzes an individual emotionally, it can have a toxic effect on his family.

Several years ago, when I entered the Kaiser Permanente health system, my primary physician asked me to visit a psychiatrist to see if I was having any problems with depression. This occurred midway through the Bush administration when, in addition to some logical financial concerns, I was deeply saddened by what had been happening to our country.

I knew I was not depressed and the psychiatrist agreed. In fact, we both had a bit of a chuckle when I stressed that there is a big difference between being depressed and being lazy (some of us choose sloth as a means of curbing our workaholic tendencies). However, slothfulness should not be mistaken for depression.

I witnessed depression for many years at a time when there was far less literature available on the subject and most people viewed depression as a luxury for rich people that others simply could not afford.  At the time, we had none of the knowledge about the disease that is so easily available today. But there is no escaping the fact that depression had a dramatic effect on my family.

Whenever she became severely depressed, my mother would go on the silent treatment. Sometimes it lasted a week, sometimes it lasted for months at a time (her longest stretch was nearly eight years). Although, during that period, she might sound perfectly cheerful on the phone, she would avoid talking to her family and retreat into her own personal hell.

Rose Heymont 50 years ago

On most occasions when she was going through a major bout of depression, my mother would set up camp in our basement (where she would eat and sleep as part of her pattern of rejection and avoidance). Although her depression shattered the family dynamic, in a perverse way it strengthened her children by forcing them to leave home and develop lives of their own.

My niece and nephew never knew whether they would encounter "good Grandma" or "the other Grandma." When Alzheimer's erased my mother's mind and memory, I remember thinking that there was a most unusual benefit to the disease process: she could no longer hurt anyone with her sarcasm or her silence.

There were many, many nights during high school when I would come down the stairs and see my father sitting on the living room couch, trying to read a book as tears silently streamed down his face. In The Glass Menagerie, Amanda Wingfield's son, Tom, developed a pattern of escaping to the movies. I started escaping to the theatre.

Over the years, I saw several dramas (The Subject Was Roses, Long Day's Journey Into Night) which depicted how depression might impact a family. But it wasn't until 1987, when I saw Neil Simon's play, Broadway Bound, that I finally saw onstage the deadly fog of silence that rules a home when a key member of the family is severely depressed.  I remember writing a letter to Linda Lavin to thank her for her performance as Kate and explain why her portrayal had been so vivid for me.

In a recent edition of The Borowitz Report, comedian Andy Borowitz wrote “With just one day until the key Republican contests in Michigan and Arizona, a new survey of likely voters indicates that in a match-up between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a majority would choose suicide over either candidate.”

Depression is not just a disease of silent sadness. Sometimes the silence masks a burning, unfocused rage whose destructive power terrifies the person who bears it as a curse. The strange thing about this silence is that, while it can be used to punish those closest to the person who is depressed, it can also prevent that person from striking out and doing much greater harm by saying hateful words that can never be taken back.

Silence and depression lie at the core of two new Bay area productions which will provide plenty of food for thought for those with a taste for serious drama. One exposes the history that led to a woman's depression as if peeling away the layers of an onion. The other brutally slices the onion in half and holds up its tear-inducing core for close inspection. As Bette Davis once warned, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"

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Written in 2003 by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad, Scorched was adapted for film and released as Incendies in 2010. In a perverse way, I'm extremely glad I did not see the film prior to attending  the American Conservatory Theater's West Coast premiere of Mouawad's play.

Using the translation by Linda GaboriauCarey Perloff has directed this complex drama with an acute sensitivity to unraveling an astonishing family mystery. The beauty and power of Mouawad's writing stands so far above the repulsive elements of the story that one leaves the theatre thrilled by the meticulous crafting of the story as well as the cumulative power of its message.

The play begins as Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) meets the twin children of Nawal, a friend and colleague who made him the executor of her will. Janine (Annie Purcell) is a mathematics professor whose outward coldness and clinical approach to life is a bit surprising for a young woman. Her brother, Simon (Babak Tafti), is an amateur boxer who is enraged to learn that, even after death, his mother has found a way to continue to make his life miserable.

Nawal had often chosen to remain silent for long periods of time, harboring a secret that she could not bring herself to tell her children while she was alive. After a stroke left her unable to speak for the last five years of her life, she left them some letters along with a pen, a worn out jacket with the number 72 on its back, and a red notebook.  In her will, she laid out precise instructions on how she was to be buried and what each child was to do with the letters and objects left behind after they had found their father and a brother they never knew they had.

Janine barely reacts while, for Simon, it's like discovering another curse. But Alphonse, who has a taste for details, forensics, and fact-checking, insists that the children follow through on their mother's wishes and offers his help in any way possible.

Janine (Annie Purcell) and Simon (Babak Tafti) are two twins
whose enigmatic, depressed mother has left very confusing instructions in her last will and testament
in Scorched (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What follows is an amazing tale of illicit love, female empowerment, terror, torture, and the culture clash between modern Canada and a Middle Eastern culture (probably Lebanon) where women are expected to remain barefoot, ignorant, and only serve to produce babies. After the young and Christian Nawal (Marian Neshat) has given birth to the son of her Arab refugee lover, Wahab (Nick Gabriel), Nawal's dying grandmother (Apollo Dukakis) begs her to leave their village and learn how to read, write, count, and speak.

During the evening, the importance of literacy for women gains focus as Nawal must use her intellectual strength to survive one crisis after another as she searches for the boy who was taken away from her and put up for adoption.

Jihane (Jacqueline Antamarian), Elhame (Omozé Idehenre),
and Nawal (Marjan Neshat), participate in a burial ceremony
in Scorched (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Scorched is one of A.C.T.'s strongest productions in recent seasons, with set design by Scott Bradley,
sound design by Jake Rodriguez, and costume design by Sandra Woodall. Working with a magnificent script, the cast and creative team guide the audience through the unraveling of an horrific family history cloaked in a Middle Eastern mystery.

The play unfolds through multiple lenses in scenes that take place in Canada and the Middle East, as well as in the present and past. What one witnesses, however, is astonishing character growth for Nawal and her two twins against a background of insane and endless war. As the play progresses, Lebel's increasing involvement in unraveling the mysteries of Nawal's will allows him to act as a father figure and guide for Janine and Simon.

Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) and Simon (Babak Tafti)
in a scene from Scorched (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While I was particularly impressed by Babak Tafti's portrayal of Simon, OmozĂ© Idehenre often commands the stage as a silent midwife and, later as Sawda, Nawal's traveling companion. Many in the cast take on multiple roles, with two actors playing Nawal at different stages of her life. Apollo Dukakis, Nick Gabriel, Jacqueline Antamarian, and Manoel Felciano shine in their moments onstage.

There are many reasons to see Scorched, but to reveal any of the plot's lurid details and mystifying discoveries would ruin the process of discovery. In addition to witnessing a great production that has been beautifully realized, the intricacy of Mouawad's plotting makes this play an important lesson for playwrights and storytellers.

Performances of Scorched continue through March 11 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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Ever since Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, launched the It Gets Better Project, more and more people have been talking about teen suicide and urging suicidal adolescents to contact The Trevor Project.

Long familiar to Bay area audiences from his popular book and monologue entitled Not A Genuine Black Man (the longest running solo show in the history of San Francisco theatre), Brian Copeland has returned to The Marsh with a new show which is not what anyone would call "a laugh and a half."  Sure, there are his deft characterizations of friends with weird personalities and even weirder voices (one of which sounds exactly like the Stinky Dog from Rubber Chicken Cards).

But comedy is the flip side of tragedy.  And for Copeland (a San Leandro native who has built a long and successful career as a standup comedian and television and radio talk show host), the pressures of balancing a performing career with the responsibilities of being a single father have been magnified by depressive challenges that make The Waiting Period: Laughter in the Darkness a much deeper, darker, and more desperate emotional puzzle for Brian to solve than his previous outings. There's no doubt that he has struggled to survive.

Dedicated to the memory of Colton L. Fink (a young man Copeland knew who committed suicide at the age of 15 in 2011), Copeland's show draws nervous laughter from his depiction of a single father who is so paralyzed with depression that he can't even boil spaghetti in order to serve his young children dinner. This is a man who, despite his fame as a lovable comedian, finds himself wondering what the best price might be to pay for a gun which will only ever need to fire one bullet.

Brian Copeland (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Occasionally, ordering in Chinese food can solve Copeland's catering problems. But there are other times when the brutal recognition that the people who so cheerfully ask how he is doing really don't want to know the answer to their question lead to painful, bitter eruptions of rage.

The Waiting Game takes its title from the 10-day waiting period during which any California gun dealer must run a mandatory background check on a potential buyer. The waiting period also serves as a cooling-off period for angry minds. Theoretically, having to wait 10 days to purchase a gun may allow more rational thinking to prevail over suicidal or homicidal ideation.

If, as they say, art holds a mirror up to civilization, then Copeland's new monologue accomplishes much more than merely entertaining a paying audience. The Waiting Period puts very human faces on the despairing souls whose lives have been severely affected by depression. In his show, Copeland asks the audience to stop and ask themselves if they know someone who might be dealing with depression. Or if they themselves might be in need of help.

Brian Copeland (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

To show how easy it is to miss the signs that someone is in emotional pain, Copeland shares the story of how, in the depths of a major depression, he was called upon to address a school auditorium filled with students eager to meet a celebrity. When Brian realized that the young girl who had followed him to the parking lot was struggling with depression, he tried to alert a member of the faculty that one of her students desperately needed help.  His attempt to sound an alarm almost met with failure because the teacher was the kind of perky personality who only wanted to hear good news.

One reason why so few people speak up about their own pain is that they are embarrassed to be labeled as a downer. Another problem with our culture is an overwhelming desire to tune out cries for help from those who are in genuine emotional distress.

For some people, depression continues to deliver an endless stream of disappointment and disillusionment as they get older. Their assessment of life is, perhaps, best summed up in this Paul Robeson recording of a popular spiritual:

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