The Yellow Wallpaper has been transformed into an interesting yet obsolete medical case on display at the Loeb Ex this weekend. Director Sarah T. Stewart invites us to attend her "Tranquil Grove Series of Visiting Lecturers on depression." This particular session takes us into the 19th century to witness how Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell's "rest" treatment drives an independent-minded woman insane. But you better get your tickets now, seminars such as these fill up quickly.
Sarah Toby Stewart and J.C. Wolfgang Murad have extended Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," into an engrossing 90 minute play. Although their attempts at moving the 1890 piece into 1993 are unsuccessful, they are also unnecessary--it's best to ignore the program and enjoy the show as a gothic social commentary on 19th century repression of women.
Dr. S. Weir Mitchell was famous for his "rest" therapy, which denied the depressed individual any activity until recovery. Of course such a cure only exacerbates the disease and, after reading Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, Dr. Mitchell changed his method of treatment. After watching the play, you'll wonder why he didn't change it sooner.
This is one of the rare times when Harvard students experiencing an experimental production do not leave the audience dispassionately dazed. Director Sarah Toby Stewart has fully utilized the Ex's spatial and technological options. She has impressively combined visual and aural effects with striking lighting, appropriate music, and a compelling script.
Production designer James Gwertzman transformed the usually black Ex into a white enclosed room, making the audience voyeurs peering at the patients bedroom. Lighting converts the antiseptic room into a frighteningly patterned cage while eery string music furthers the tension.
Jessica Walling delivers a riveting, powerful performance as a former magazine editor who is confined to a room and forbid from the activity she loves most--writing. Her creative mind, demanding stimulation, creates fantasies of a woman trapped under the pattern of the wallpaper. Walling, with the help of ominous Bartok music, brings the audience to the brink of insanity, to the abyss of madness into which she herself is rapidly descending.
Yvonne Roemer's choreography poignantly depicts the frustration and frenzy of a woman's soul held captive by unbreakable, ever-changing patterns and restrictions. The dancing becomes especially moving when Amalie Weber's and Walling's movements are synchronized.
Walling far outshines the other cast members. Kitt Harasaki, as Dr. Mitchell, seems unnaturally stiff and Colin Stokes, the husband, appears effective as a paternalistic clod but uncomfortable with the language.
The symbolism of the play may seem weak by today's standards. The woman--she is given no name--projects her plight onto another unnamed woman, thus universalizing the theme. Also, women's issues of the 1990s differ greatly from the concerns of the 19th century, rendering the play slightly outdated.
As a theatrical experience on a historically significant issue, The Yellow Wallpaper does it all. You'll laugh, you'll feel disturbed, it's better than Cats.