BWW Review: WORLD BUILDERS at Forum Theatre
Schizoid personality disorder (SPD): A personality disorder characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency towards a solitary lifestyle, secretiveness, emotional coldness, and apathy. Affected individuals may simultaneously demonstrate a rich, elaborate, and exclusively internal fantasy world.
"Penguin Dictionary of Psychology," 2009.
Whitney and Max are participants in a 42-day residential clinical drug trial for a medication treating the symptoms of their SPD. Having spent a majority of their lives living in intense and private worlds created and existing within their own mind, they wait in anxious anticipation of what their lives will become as the medication begins to slowly take effect. Rather than risk entirely losing the memory of their worlds to their treatment, they do what neither has done before and share the contents of their fantasies with one another. As their worlds slowly die, Whitney and Max replace the love and need that they have for their mental creations with real-world feelings for one another.
As unique as their circumstances may be, Whitney and Max's story is a touching metaphor for what everyone--with or without SPD--must question when choosing whether to enter into a new romantic relationship. How much should you open up? How much should you trust another? What do you gain by making yourself vulnerable to the love of another human being, versus how much do you give up? How do you best negotiate who is going to take one for the team--and how will that play out? How much of yourself do you get to keep intact, and how much morphs entirely into the new creation of coupledom? Should you really allow this stranger into your world?
Johnna Adams' brilliant script delves into these universal themes through the use of precise and punctuated dialogue that is as entirely believable as it is bizarre. That she manages to explore the world of mental illness without exploiting stereotypes or making the audience feel that they are snickering at things they shouldn't is a testament to her gift as a storyteller. We are able to be voyeurs in a world that would otherwise be, quite literally, locked up. Adams asks us to question whether living in the "normal" world is better than the fascinating worlds that Max and Whitney create for themselves. And yet, despite it all, this isn't solely, or even primarily, a play about the benefits of mental illness over sanity. It's a fascinating exploration of what it takes to truly love another person.
Director Amber McGinnis Jackson steers her remarkable cast through a story of opposite forces and stark contrasts. She brings the play's worlds alive through purposeful staging and fills the audience with such energy that it is left twirling in Whitney's mania and sinking in Max's oppressive guilt. Without Jackson's sharp pacing and punctuation, much of Adam's fantastically quick dialogue and subtle themes would surely have been lost.
Huge credit for the show's success goes to its two-person cast, who perform mesmerizing verbal acrobatics for nearly two hours straight. Both manage to stay solely focused on their world(s) and each other despite the Wooly Mammoth rehearsal hall's uber-intimate (and super appropriate, if possibly unintended) black box space. Despite the fact that their imaginary worlds--and their response to living in them--could not be more different from one another, Whitney (Laura C. Harris) and Max (Daniel Corey) manage to have near-perfect chemistry with one another. While Laura Harris's affected portrayal of Whitney made me cringe during the show's first five minutes, once my ears got used to her purposefully rhythmic delivery, I grew enamored with her fantastical intensity and her pent up energy. Daniel Corey's more subtle portrayal of Max was no less intense or endearing, and was just as compelling to watch. Both actors brought appropriate amounts of levity to what could otherwise be an unbearably bleak script. While their worlds may only have been believable to their characters, their connection to one another was completely realistic and left me rooting for their success.
Despite the wonderfully claustrophobic surroundings of the production's theater-in-the-round setting, the design team managed to further extrapolate the juxtaposition of opposite forces at play in the production. Thomas Sowers' sound design was evocative of Brian Eno's haunting ambient lullabies, and Mary Keegan's lighting design was beautiful and effective despite the challenges provided by the small space. However, it was Debra Kim Sivigny's sparse set design that truly became the third character in the show. With just a few pieces of simple color-contrasted furniture, Sivigny (aided by Jackson's adept blocking) managed to cleverly emphasize the plays themes of opposition, giving and taking, and the coming apart and rejoining of two independent wholes into something new, foreign, and complete.
WORLD BUILDERS is profoundly thoughtful, transformative story telling at its finest.
Forum Theatre's WORLD BUILDERS plays at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company's rehearsal hall (641 D Street NW, Washington, DC) through November 21. The show is billed as running 90 minutes (opening night ran nearly two hours) without an intermission. Tickets are available at www.forum-theatre.com.
Pictured: Laura C. Harris as Whitney and Daniel Corey as Max in Forum Theatre's WORLD BUILDERS
Photo Credit: C. Stanley Photography.