BWW Review: IDENTITY at El Barrio Artspace - Fascinating Tale of Growing Up Disabled and Gay
"Some people go to therapy to work out their stuff," Nicholas Linnehan informs at the start of his autobiographical play, Identity. Not him. Instead, "I write plays to fix myself." Before the first scene even starts, his character named Mike is laying bare his emotions for the audience to see. A man with a mild case of cerebral palsy and disarthryic speech, he points out that he is different from us. "And deep down inside, I guess I'm praying I'm really not."
The play opens with Mike restrained on a hospital bed. Why is he there? What has happened? In a series of flashback scenes, the audience is taken on a journey to comprehend, understand and empathize with life as a disabled person. His particular road is made even more difficult as Mike is also a gay man. Admittedly a terrible athlete despite Dad's dreams for baseball glory, he instead found his home run in theater. Thankfully he has shared his trials and tribulations in this original, heartfelt and engrossing confessional.
The fourth wall is broken repeatedly throughout Mr. Linnehan's play. His asides are wry and often hilarious. As a straight "A" ten year old: "by the way, I'm supposed to be much younger now." He stops and asks, "am I giving an Oscar worthy performance here?" The jokes are frequent and effectively draw us in closer to his quirky and playful personality. When he turns serious and peels back yet another layer for us to examine, the drama is vivid and quietly devastating.
Mike is living "in the crack" somewhere between abled and disabled. As a result, he does not feel part of the normal world "if it exists." In a scene loaded with emotional transparency, he wishes for one more affectation of his disease "just to belong." Mike's search for his identity is the basis for this play. What makes this riveting theater is the performance itself. He takes his audience by the hand and does not lecture. He doesn't demand empathy and is occasionally off-putting in his bitterness and self-deprecation. The effect achieved allows us to see a real, imperfect and articulate human being sharing a complicated journey. Identity certainly confronts the hard knocks of growing up but is ultimately a celebration of life and the dreams which give us hope.
At intermission, Mike confided "you are all part of this crazy thing I call a play." The story centers on three key figures from his past: mom, dad and a doctor. Dad (Tim Connell) is largely a one-dimensional tyrant but seems to have been written that way since these scenes are extracted from Mr. Linnehan's memories. Amy Liszka's endearing, chain smoking Mom is the more sympathetic parent but even she struggles with unequivocal love and support. It is no surprise that the Doctor (Matthew Tyler) is perhaps the most important character on this stage. His eyes are our window into the clinical and distancing part of this expressively therapeutic play.
Christopher Scott directed Identity with a loosely informal style but with clearly defined scenes ranging from naturalistic to abstractly provocative. In the small (and quite nice) basement theater at El Barrio Artspace, Mike's parents try to grasp whether their son is happy. His doctor also wonders the same thing. At the end of this memorable tale Mr. Linnehan turns to the audience and asks, "Am I happy?" It's worth your time to find out the answer in this uniquely fascinating work.