Anatomy of a Suicide
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Theater review by Adam Feldman
Anatomy of a Suicide is a fugue play. For most of Alice Birch’s gorgeously incisive, elegantly devastating look at the legacy of severe depression across generations, there are three stories unfolding at once; their themes, words and characters overlap and strike off one another in counterpoint. On stage right of Mariana Sanchez’s spacious, minimalist set is Carol (Carla Gugino), a housewife in what seems like the late 1960s; when we meet her, she has just slit her wrists. Anna (Celeste Arias), in the middle, lives about 30 years years later, and is introduced to us as a willowy heroin addict in the hospital after sustaining a hand injury she can barely feel; a parallel begins to emerge. Meanwhile, on stage left and a few more decades down the line, a fisherwoman named Jo (Jo Mei) is getting stitched up by a doctor after stabbing her palm. But it is her doctor, Bonnie (Gabby Beans), who turns out to be the main character in this third of the narrative—just one of many small twists that Birch introduces in this difficult and rewarding drama.
The structure of the play is disorienting, at times even overwhelming. But Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction provides clarity amid the cloud of pain. The production is exquisitely timed and calibrated, from the precision of the actors’ coordinated dialogue to the brief thaws of Jiyou Chang’s glacial lighting and the eeriness of Rucyl Frison’s sound.
Superbly portrayed by Gugino, Arias and Beans, the three main women manifest their illnesses differently: Carol and Bonnie are more interior—it makes the former seem glamorous to others, and the latter seem aloof—whereas Anna pours her pain out in torrents. But if they share an inability to connect with people (and especially to accept love), they are deeply bonded, for better or worse, to their mothers and daughters. Bonnie, describing her emotions after moving back to her family home, says it’s “like being very far underground, like being where roots are”; Carol calls her daughter “a fish hook around my middle pulling me up when I want to be under.” Birch’s play takes an unsentimental but humane view of the suffering we may not always recognize in others. It hooks into you and lifts you up, like it or not.
Atlantic Theater Company (Off Broadway). By Alice Birch. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. With Carla Gugino, Celeste Arias, Gabby Beans. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission. Through Mar 15.