Jewish Women’s Theatre, presents “Mapping of the Mind,” co-produced by Ronda Spinak and Laura Ornest. a series of vignettes dealing with mental health, and completely gets the mind right. A once taboo subject, mental illness now is predominant in many a movie, play, and visual art form. Artists tend to feel things strongly. They embrace the brokenness of life and turn it into the most beautiful of stories. What makes people different, other, vulnerable, can turn into learning lessons and journeys into the inner workings of a mind. One example is the recent Oscar nominated Joker, where an otherwise ostracized character, is also a deep, vulnerable, troubled soul in need of compassion and mental health services.
Ronda Spinak, co-producer and curator of the show’s material, introduced the theme, saying “these people, challenged with mental health issues forged a life, through painting, writing, art, which revealed inner strength, courage and hope. Many say, mental illness doesn’t run in my family… it just meanders in.” In these salon style theatres, in intimate venues like homes and studios, the audience gleans this hope vicariously through songs and stories. The stories were performed by ensemble members, Nicole Lipp; Kate Zentall; Nadege August; and Josh T. Ryan.
One moving piece, entitled “Let My Son Be Free,” written by Marc Littman, and performed by Josh T. Ryan and ensemble, honors an autistic son and his family, who see the light and embrace his specialness with a new set of family and friends.
In each story presented, the actors were precise in showing how important it is to reveal the soul and potential of an imperfect mind rather than as a stigma or distortion. As a result, the audience viewing and hearing these performers come to realize how truly similar their stories and backgrounds are to themselves. Mental health issues do not discriminate. They affect rich, poor, young old, female, male, Jew, non-Jew. One sketch, “Successful and Schizophrenic,” written by Elyn Saks, and performed by Kate Zentall and ensemble, features a woman with high functioning schizophrenia and her simple struggle to relate to her peers. Each story is handled in a delicate, respectful, and entirely genuine relatable manner, and might I add, even uplifting. Each one successfully shows how people deal with mental illness without playing on the stigmatizing term, crazy. It engages the audience with ‘next to normal’ individuals, who incidentally, also have bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s or depression.
On a personal note, as a parent of a son on the Autism spectrum, with Aspergers, and also bi polar disorder, I’m extremely sensitive to portrayals of art imitating life. This production shows the beauty in each individual, the triumphs and setbacks; the highs and lows, and most of all, that each one has his/her own ‘beautiful mind.’ The seat of creative thinking is often found in the illness, with the miraculous power of the human being to find wellness in the illness.
At show’s start, Josh T. Ryan performs a musical introduction of “Maury’s Theme,” excerpts written by Maury Ornest. The entire mood is set, one of calm amidst writing, music, art, and sunshine. Maury’s journal begins with an entry of ‘good morning,’ in hopes of living his life with bipolar by being less moody, and letting go of his OCD and PTSD, to cope with stress, to live in calmness. Another profound piece, “The Queen of More,” written by Julie Chafets Grass, and performed by Nadege August, explores the insatiable, never ending yearning for more, never satisfied by just enough, an unquenching thirst all too familiar. In “Sharon, A Love Story,” Nicole Lipp performs the poignant story by Robyn Goodman Mandelberg, about her time as a student at Yale, suffering clinical depression and suicidal ideations, with a rare gem of a psychiatrist, ever by her side through all of life’s travails and triumphs. “Three Years of Atonement,” written by Emily Jaffe, performed by Nadege August, deals with the haunting theme of all that the Days of Awe entail: who shall live, who shall die; beating one’s breast; and above all, forgiveness. “A Beautiful Soul,” written by Ronda Spinak and performed by Kate Zentall, is about the writer’s beloved Uncle Jack, a tzaddik in his own right, at times, misunderstood, and a soul forever loved and cherished. “When Mom Tried to Stab Magnolia,” written by Rossi, and performed by Nicole Lipp and ensemble, brings ‘crazy’ to a whole new level.
Each piece depicts a complex personality trying his/her best to navigate the world in a functional way. Depression and suicide, once taboo, foreign words, are now slowly gaining awareness, understanding, and acceptance, thanks to a show such as this provocative one. Theatre and art can work as a safe, inclusive haven for the open secret of mental illness to evolve. “Mapping of the Mind“ is definitely theatre on the edge, on the caliber of such material found on popular streaming networks, like Netflix; HBO; Hulu; and Amazon Prime.