Marla Mase’s “The Pill” At La Mama, Thursday, January 25th, 2018, Reviewed
Over the centuries the meaning has changed, but in the Shakespearian era a comedy simply meant a story with a happy ending, a tragedy meant a story with a sad ending. At its first reading in front of an audience, March 2017, Marla Mase’s dysfunctional family play “The Pill” was a comedy, last night at the La Mama world premiere, it was a tragedy. Near the very end of “The Pill,” the sixteen year old actress Zoe Wilson, portraying the anorexic, bulimic, and suicidal Leni. Based upon the great soul singer Lael Summer, Marla Mase’s daughter, sings Tomas Doncker and Lael’s “Make You Whole,” renamed “Make Us Whole”. It is terrifying, heartbreaking, and final, and it didn’t exist last March. At the end of the play last March, the Mase family bandied together to tell off an Aunt: a joyful coming together in the face of mental illness, divorce, and paranoia. In 2018, there is no way through, Marla, who co-wrote “The Pill” with her son, daughter, and parents, couldn’t save us from reality, couldn’t right the wrongs.
In a play with every human feeling on display, the image that you take with you is Leni singing “Make Us Whole”. It is too much, it makes you want to break down, and the ending proper, where Leni is resurrected as the family sings “Hold Onto Your Dreams,” it is so difficult for us to do so.
What happened to “The Pill” was reality beat it to the punch. It is impossible to react to the play without the backstory engulfing it. “The Pill” is the story of Sylvia, a performance artist cum party planner, who accidentally took her daughter’s antidepressant and had a major meltdown. Sylvia took that moment (Halloween, 2007) as a jumping off point for the story of a family in free fall which works desperately through love and a commitment to each other, to save itself. And it does save itself, at the cost of one of the members of the household. Lael Summer succumbed to suicide in July 2017, and she turns the comedy to tragedy. When I first saw the reading, Lael was sitting a couple of rows to my right, watching her story enfold, last night watching Sylvia say the words Marla read at Lael’s funeral is really quite devastating, it is an act of bravery and completeness, not pleasure but necessity.
Suicide is one of those things.. self-preservation isn’t simply a human instinct, it exists in all animals, all living creatures (only procreation is stronger), indeed everything that lives at all (that’s what the thorns on roses are for, so you can’t kill the rose) is in the business of self-preservation, so suicide is the scariest and saddest of mental illnesses, murder is kid’s stuff in comparison. As Sylvia and her family try to save Leni and save themselves, the mystery of Leni remains untouched: it makes no sense because it makes no sense: no explanation can help, no words can explain it. If a 60 year old man discovers he is going to die in six months from cancer and decides to hurry the process, that makes sense, When a beautiful, gifted, and much loved 24 year old succumbs, that is something with no defense mechanism we can use. “The Pill” honors the process, it observes, over and over, it brings us close to the girl but not to the unreasonable action.
“The Pill” tells this story from five different angles, but the central one is that of the brother, who is remembering much of the story as an adult, and, simultaneously, living it as a child. As an adult, Big Phillip, as portrayed by Adam Patterson, is a walking camera (late in the play there is an excellent Ingmar Bergman circa “Persona” parody), directing us where he wants us to go. The Little Phillip, Joshua Turchin, is a walking wound trying to navigate between his mother and older sister, and the two are a tag team, a before and after, trying to remain uninfected by the madness that surrounds them. It is a central pillar of the play, it stands on Phillip’s all too natural fearfulness. Adam is especially better without the play in his hand, where he can wander the stage with ease, pulling us into his vision. Joshua never let’s you catch him acting, a pre-teen, the boy has none of the nudging twinkle you see in Disney sitcoms.
Actually, all the acting is superb. Graham Stevens as both Sylvia’s ex husband, new boyfriend, and Aunt Sheila, takes a role that was something of a cipher originally and makes it important, Marina Re as the Grandmother is more firmly rooted here, her mental illness less daffy (and cut a little, less comedic effect, but the entire play has less comedic effect). Roger Rathburn performs the Grandfather with an air of natural superiority that holds the family in his grasp even as they wiggle free. Somebody should write a play with Howard Mase, the real life Grandfather, as a central figure, he is one of the more fascinating people you will ever meet. Winsome Brown is superb as Sylvia, the mother trying so hard to keep it together but unable not to be her human self. You might have wondered what it is like to have the performance artist Marla Mase as your mother, in one of the funniest moments of the evening, Winsome gives us some of Marla’s performance art, while the family watches on in a state of disbelief. The play was directed by Randolph Curtis Rand, and the directing is excellent on the sparse set and the choreography is astounding, Rand uses the movement of the characters as a shorthand for the changing in time and place. “The Pill” isn’t a musical, but given that both Marla Mase and Lael Summer, are professional musicians, it is hardly surprising that there are some first rate songs, co-written by Tomas Doncker. “Make Us Whole” I’ve mentioned, but all the songs are terrific, and we wait patiently for a recording.
But the play belongs to Lael and Lael belongs to Leni and Leni belongs to Zoe Wilson. After Lael’s passing, Zoe wrote “I still believe in fairies,” referencing the start of the play. Lael and Zoe became close and Wilson gives the performance of a lifetime, during the readings Zoe was an Achilles, a wounded God, but with Lael’s passing, Zoe doesn’t do that anymore, she tones down the charm and ups the pain level. It is an enormously difficult role, more difficult now than then, now there is no light at the end of the tunnel, Zoe has to make despair watchable, she has to make the last scenes bearable for all their extremeness, so when we lose her at the end it seems inevitable in the tragic sense: that something within her took her from us. That people with mental illness may have hope but Leni didn’t, couldn’t, she couldn’t fight her fate.
The Pill is in performance at La Mama till its Sunday matinee, but it doesn’t feel finished, you would like to see it expanded further, on a bigger stage, you can imagine a rewrite that expands the vision not of the play itself but the staging proper.. Lael deserves it, Marla and her son Yanai Feldman deserves it, “The Pill” deserves it.