BWW Review: Grace Carter Creeps Toward Insanity in CoHo's Chilling Adaptation of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER

BWW Review: Grace Carter Creeps Toward Insanity in CoHo's Chilling Adaptation of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper has long been required reading for students of literature, feminism, and women's health alike. It's the story of a woman sentenced to a rest cure to treat a nervous condition. This "cure" consisted of a strict dietary regime, various tonics and phosphates ("or phosphites -- whichever it is"), and absolutely no mental stimulation or exertion. Basically, she is confined (by her husband) to a room (that used to be a nursery) with nothing to do other than stare at world's worst wallpaper for three months.

Unsurprisingly, this does not make her better. It makes her crazy. She starts to see things in the wallpaper -- first just strange patterns, then "strangled heads and bulbous eyes," and finally a woman behind bars who skulks around the room and sometimes gets out to creep in the garden.

Gilman wrote the story a few years after she was treated via rest cure for a vague medical condition called neurasthenia -- a diagnosis commonly ascribed to women at the time -- by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. She was advised to "live as domestic a life as far as possible...have but two hours' intellectual life a day...and never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again as long as [she] lived." She tried for three months, during which she came "so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over." Her goal in writing The Yellow Wallpaper was to save other women from this fate. She even sent a copy of the published story to Weir Mitchell. He never responded.

If you haven't read it (or haven't read it lately), you can find a full copy, as well as reactions to it on the National Library of Medicine website (link to the story here). You can also read a critical history of the story on the newly relaunched CoHo Productions blog.

I give you all of this history because when I heard that CoHo Productions was doing a new adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper this year, I was super excited. But I also wondered how they were going to pull it off. The story isn't very long (~6,000 words), it's written as a collection of journal entries by someone who is descending into madness, and there isn't much action. There's also the matter of the woman in the paper.

But pull it off they did!

Sue Mach's excellent script is a mashup of the short story and Gilman's personal letters and journals, which provide a well rounded-out plot. The main character in this adaptation is Charlotte herself. It begins with Charlotte meeting her future husband, John, for the first time, at one of his lectures. The fact that he initially admires her as an intellectual makes it even more heartbreaking later when he insists that the best cure for her nervous condition is to not think. Mach has beefed up the plot and given both John and Jenny (John's sister, who acts as a companion/nurse to Charlotte) substantial roles. It works very well. She also did something very interesting with the end, which I won't give away other than to say that I loved it and it sparked a fantastic post-play discussion.

As for the woman in the paper -- there is an actual woman in the paper! (You'll just have to see it for yourself.)

This write-up is already longer than most of my reviews and I haven't yet mentioned Grace Carter. Let's fix that now, because it really is her show. Carter, whose long list of accomplishments includes cofounder of defunkt theatre and Drammy Award winner, conceived and co-produced THE YELLOW WALLPAPER. She also plays Charlotte.

The Yellow WallpaperIf you would like to know what it feels like to teeter "so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that [you can] see over," just watch Carter in the scene where Jenny washes Charlotte's hair. Carter's portrayal of Charlotte's headlong race toward insanity is flawless. Watching it is a visceral experience. You'll feel the desolation of being deprived of intellectual pursuits, the anxiety that you too might become trapped behind the paper. I'm starting to panic a little just remembering it.

The rest of the cast is also strong. Chris Harder is a great John -- you'll love him because, well, he's Chris Harder and you'll hate him for what he's doing to his wife. Christy Bigelow is well-cast as Jenny, who loves Charlotte deeply but doesn't understand what it means to want more in life.

The only thing I didn't love about this production was the paper itself. It isn't real, but rather is projected onto the walls. I think this must have been a practical decision (otherwise, they'd have to repaper the walls every night), but the result is that the paper isn't very interesting. Much of the story is dedicated to juicy descriptions: "the color is repellent, almost revolting," "there is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare are you upside down," "this paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had." I would have liked to have seen these things in the paper too, to have my own awful visions, to feel overwhelmed by all of that horrid yellow. But I realize that's asking a lot. And, really, it didn't matter that I couldn't see these things, because I'm quite certain Grace Carter could!

I went to the play with some The Yellow Wallpaper purists, some people who had read it a long time ago, and some who'd never read it at all. We all loved it. You will too.

THE YELLOW WALLPAPER plays through February 6. Get your tickets here: http://www.cohoproductions.org/

Photo credit: Owen Carey

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