I wasn’t wild about English playwright Sarah Kane’s fragmented, difficult last play 4.48 Psychosis, although there’s much to admire about Vernal & Sere Theatre, the daring Atlanta company that’s putting it on (through October 7). Depression, madness, suicide, existential pain and confusion are the subjects here, and Kane seldom tries to make them more palatable by attaching them to anything so conventional as characters or a plot.
In a series of short, often abstract vignettes, four female performers describe and enact the most excruciating nadirs of mental illness and depression (the 4.48 of the title refers to a time late in a troubled night, a moment of both quiet and chaos, clarity and confusion). “Madness is scorched from the bisected soul,” “I will drown in dysphoria” and “Love keeps me a slave in a cage of tears” are but a few examples of the lines, which manifest primarily in this poetical vein. The play paints an unvaryingly dark, nightmarish and despairing picture, punctuated by anguished cries, smears of stage blood and a shower of pills, all backdropped by institutional beige walls and a digital clock displaying an addled countdown. It makes The Seagull look like Hello, Dolly!
4.48 recalls a work I admire, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel about a woman’s social displacement, suicide attempts, madness and institutionalization. In both instances, women wrote about suicide and then, sadly, did the deed (Kane killed herself in 1999), giving the final works a scary, hardcore edge. For some observers, both works would seemingly be withdrawn from the realm of criticism: How can one criticize what is the literary equivalent of a suicide note? I guess I’m just tacky enough to say I like Sylvia’s better than Sarah’s. Plath worked with the clear advantages of character, story and a compelling sense of the absurd. The works can each be classified as feminist, I suppose, in that they unabashedly lay bare aspects of women’s experiences that are all too often swept under the rug, but they also each tug in the opposite direction, as well, in their depictions of women who are miserable, victimized, powerless and paralyzed. These notes struck unabated and far too many times for me during 4.48.
You could say the material wasn’t a match for me, but it’s still easy to recognize that the four actresses (Kathrine Barnes, Erin Boswell, Erin O’Connor and Madelyn Wall) inhabit and convey Kane’s frightening world with extraordinary intensity. The strikingly modern, minimalist set with its movable, transparent walls and harsh lighting is surprisingly effective. Though sparse, it provides a sense of visual variety and interest that the script itself too often lacks. Scenes in which the four actresses play doctor and patient, surreally mirrored in pairs on both sides of transparent walls, are the trippiest, most resonant part of the evening.
There’s no pre-curtain speech. (I’ve been meaning to get on a soapbox about this annoying, folksy tradition in Atlanta theater. Why can’t shows just begin, as this one admirably does?) And even more daringly, there’s no curtain call. The brutal show simply comes to an end when the performers exit. It makes for a strange moment, but the sheer audacity of it made me want to stand up and cheer, even though I and the rest of the stunned audience basically just sat there staring at the empty stage for a few quiet minutes.
Overall, there’s a brave edginess to both the script choice and the production that are sorely lacking elsewhere in Atlanta theater. I see a lot of shows in a week, and I liken this recent experience to, say, suddenly switching the radio station from adult contemporary to punk rock. Things may have sounded pleasant enough for a time, but elements of insipidness and facile servility of the former can suddenly be thrown into sharp relief by the latter. (And it’s worth noting, in both instances, that’s not a switch everyone will take to.) Still, Vernal & Sere is a company I want to keep my eye on, especially in the hopes they’ll soon pick up a script I like better than 4.48 Psychosis.