Killing Them Softly

To quote an infamous misquote, “what a terrible thing to have lost one’s mind.” That bit of dystopian nostalgia suddenly seems a bit easier to take after the election results this week. In this case, the two diaries of diseased psyches investigated in Memoirs of Madness, is, instead, a pleasure. Capping the eerie Halloween season (as well as an exhausting campaign season) with retellings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, My Fair Heathen Productions presents fairly stripped-down versions of the two stories, each told by a disturbed narrator, which delight in their simplicity and chilly nakedness. Most women’s literature students are familiar with Gilman’s haunting late 19th century story, which was semi-autobiographical and damning of her doctor’s naïve and sometimes deadly prescription for his “hysterical” female patients—forced bed rest. That may sound fairly innocuous, perhaps even tempting, for those of us working a tough daily grind. But Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell’s “Rest Cure” was insidious and disempowering, an essential imprisonment, for women suffering from depression or other emotional problems, leading in some cases to insanity and/or death. In Gilman’s essay, “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper,” she explains that her book was “not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked,” as the once-acclaimed doctor eventually altered his treatment.

Megan O’Leary fully embodies the Gilman narrator, taking us along on her journey from her arrival in the rambling country estate when she first seems to feel earnest and obedient about her “rest,” which has been prescribed by the character’s doctor husband, similar in tone to the real-life Dr. Mitchell. The set is minimal, showing a simple bed with wooden headboard, a window, and a comfortable chair, in the room in which she is forced to remain, with its tattered wallpaper and ironic history as a former nursery that has fallen to ruin.

With references to a new baby and a live-in mother’s helper, it’s clear that she’s suffering from what is now commonly known (and treated) as postpartum depression. But as the character begins to feel more trapped, alienated, and isolated in her confined quarters, we witness her become more obsessive, secretive, and disturbed, to the point where the yellow wallcovering, and more frighteningly, what she sees in it, takes over the entire focus of her mind. O’Leary achieves this by growing more frantic and restless, confiding her fears and plans, while still largely retaining her appeasing smile and outward pleasantries, as she tries to conceal her true torment from the others. This has a creepy as well as a believable effect.

Her demise is also expressed by a bit of a crumbling Victorian tune played between scenes. Some of her visions are brought to life via projected images on the walls, which seem realistic as to her description of them, but I wondered if they could have been executed in a bit more frightening or tormenting way. Given the technological advances of our age in contrast, maybe a somewhat more expressionistic version of the yellow wallpaper would have been interesting. However, the effects used here did seem to fit the setting and did not take away from the character’s storytelling.

The second piece, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, written about 50 years earlier, is also told by a singular narrator and works equally well in the same set, now as the bedroom of the old man and soon-to-be victim. With more dramatic lighting, including the entrance and effective first words of the narrator given in total darkness, Poe’s character, played by Gretchen Knapp, immediately grips us with his all-too-sensible madness. Knapp’s gender play is well done, with no discernable difference to the familiar Poe character, only that much more of an intriguing performance to see and hear. Dressed in period garb with her long hair pulled back, Knapp commands the audience’s attention, and even with the piece’s shorter length, there’s certainly no shortage of impact.

Poe’s genius in making the narrator seem so sincere, and yet ultimately undone by the overworkings of his own mind, is entertaining and well nuanced here. One-person narrated shows can sometimes be tough to execute, but both Knapp and O’Leary carry their roles strongly, and the direction by Janet Bobcean succeeds in sustaining their efforts, as well as staying true to the source material. The two selections as companion pieces bookend nicely together: one with its female, internal struggles; and the other with its more male, outward actions.

It was even fun to revisit the familiar Poe story in a post-CSI mindset. I mean, come on, dismember and squire away body parts under the floorboards with “no stain of any kind, no blood-spot whatever,” really? After years of believing this narrator, I think I finally got it that perhaps those chatty policemen weren’t just idly hanging around, but maybe waiting like the rest of us to see if the innocent neighbor would reveal himself. Thanks to My Fair Heathen for dusting off these gems, revisiting them with aplomb, as well as inspiring them to be viewed in new ways.

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