This play from a rising Australian star asks where mental illness ends and identity begins
When Anna (Brenna Harding) was a child, she was a writer. She filled notebook after notebook with spiky, precocious stories – dark and tinged with death, but full of promise. She’s 18 now, trying to sort out her life, and she’s starting to think that she should be a writer. There’s just one problem: Anna can’t seem to write anymore. Maybe it’s because ever since those childhood stories sent up red flags, she’s been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, and has been on a strict and strong drug regimen ever since.
Now, Anna has questions. What would happen if she stopped taking her pills? Is anyone sure they’re the right ones? Is anyone one hundred percent sure that her diagnosis was correct? Her father had just died at the time of her diagnosis – what if she was just a sensitive, grieving, girl? And what do you mean, her brain chemistry may have been forever altered by these drugs, and she can’t just reset herself by declining to take them anymore?
Surrounding Anna are people who care about her and wish her health, happiness and a fulfilling future – her mother Renee (Hannah Waterman) and her psychiatrist Vivienne (Penny) – but both are complicit, largely unintentionally, in Anna’s suffering as they’ve tried to save and shore up her life against her overwhelming pain
And then there’s Oliver (Shiv Palekar), Anna’s new boyfriend. He’s cared for his unwell father for many years, and is compelled to but concerned about taking care of someone else now he’s finally out of school and discovering new freedoms.
But Anna? She just wants to understand herself. So she stops taking her pills.
The Almighty Sometimes is a striking, sensitive drama about the grey areas in mental health diagnosis, treatment and care. It’s written with sharp intelligence and deep compassion by Australian playwright Kendall Feaver, a rising talent in her adopted home of the UK. The play hews closely enough to the structure of a family drama to feel familiar, but this recognition of form is a clever choice: we, and the play, are supported enough by dramatic convention to allow us to explore shaky, rarely-visited ground with nuance. In the space of The Almighty Sometimes, Feaver, and her audiences, can ask difficult questions and resist the impulse to provide definitive answers. It allows us the space to reflect.
Directed by Lee Lewis on a set (by Dan Potra) that resists domesticity and suggests a constant presence of the clinical, the play is a tight, uncompromising portrait of a mother and daughter trying to find a way through a situation that one in five Australians deal with every day, staring down the complexity of psychiatry, care and personal relationships in an era that’s in a long embrace with pharmaceuticals.
Lewis directs with energy and extraordinary feeling; her actors deliver performances that are generously, almost dangerously vulnerable. Harding is a towering presence as the clever and abrasive Anna, perfectly matched in strength by Cook as her longtime, career-devoted psychiatrist, and Waterman, who is heartbreaking as the mother who – like many mothers – just wants to take away her child’s suffering.
Feaver has written a play that balances harrowing but genuinely fresh ideas with deft construction and quick humour. This is a play that says “we need to have a serious talk about the way we’re handling this mental health crisis” but it also reaches out and holds your hand. With her writing, Feaver reminds us we don’t walk these sometimes scary, sometimes difficult worlds alone – we’re a community trying to learn the best ways to take care of ourselves and each other.