The 15-member ensemble of this world premiere by David Rabe files into the 45-seat theater humming and vocalizing, evoking the sound of an orchestra warming up. The moment nicely prepares us for the three-hour symphony of joy and pain they’re about to perform in what might alternately be titled “Ode to Psychotherapy.”
Rabe’s play, expanding on a short piece he wrote for a fundraiser years ago, is inspired by a book called Undoing Depression by a Connecticut mental health professional named Richard O’Connor. His presumed stand-in, Connecticut mental health professional Robert Michaels (played by John Gawlik with compassion and deep humanity), is the conductor of the piece; Robert introduces us to a colleague (Lynda Newton) and an array of their clients, ranging from the heartbreaking—an adolescent foster child (Caroline Heffernan) with anger and self-harm issues—to the jocular, as in the 75-year-old man (Rob Riley) who’s lost sight of reasons to get out of bed and whose therapy-skeptical view provides much of the evening’s humor.
Robert tells us straight out, in an opening monologue that sets up a conscious parallel to Our Town, that much of the play takes place in his imagination. Thus his clients can interact with one another, or address us directly. Or they can make actual music, when Robert decides they should sing an old ditty like “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along)” at the piano.
And then there’s Mom. As Robert confesses to us, his own mother struggled with depression and alcoholism, and committed suicide when he was 9. His memory of her becomes the manifestation of his own demons as well as those of his clients. As chillingly embodied by Brittany Burch, she looms over the proceedings, the nagging voice in Robert’s head that represents both his motivation and his ever-present doubts. “I’m just trying to gnaw at you, that’s all,” Burch trills, feigned innocence not quite concealing malice.
A world premiere by Rabe, the 75-year-old Tony-winning playwright of Hurlyburly and Streamers, is an attention-getting coup for the tiny Gift, and director Michael Patrick Thornton and his fine ensemble lean into the opportunity. The Gift’s storefront space is reoriented for an alley staging, with additional playing areas tucked into nooks and crannies above the main floor suggesting the compartmentalized design of Robert’s imagination.
There’s room for tightening in Rabe’s script, assuredly, and certain elements, like a stonewalling insurance company case manager, feel a bit facile (no matter how true to life). But on the whole this is an immersive, engaging look inside a profession of passion, performed with an abundance of the same.
The Gift Theatre. By David Rabe. Directed by Michael Patrick Thornton. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs; one intermission.