As I reflect on Mental, Gregg Garner’s most recent original production, it feels more appropriate to be writing a self-reflective journal entry than a review.
The two-act play performed at the Arts at Center Street theatre on June 10-11 (and shows again this coming weekend 17-19), propels the audience into a whirlwind of thought regarding the pervasive, yet hard to handle realities of mental illness and its effects on all of us.
The story follows the Clark family, who has experienced their fair share of familial turbulence that has only seemed to grow over time as the effects of one circumstance bleed into another.
The play centers around the four children of Ellie Clark who are gathering at her home for what looks to be one more episode in their unstable narrative.
As I navigated the tangled relational web of the Clark family, I felt the discomfort of family drama that we’ve all experienced, whether it was with our family or being in the wrong place at the wrong time to witness someone else’s. As stories of the past are told and characters who have contributed to the Clark narrative emerge, we all learn actually how normal it can be for family drama to shape a person, even if that shape turns out to be messy.
The play is relatable because we all have families and none of them are perfect. Yet our families are so integral to our formation, for better or worse.
Theatre, however, provides just enough emotional distance to give us the ability to reflect on why the Clark family dynamic (and perhaps our own) develops in the way that it does.
Garner’s use of limited stage space called upon the audience to think and use imagination, which I found all the more engaging. A great deal of intention was put into details of the scenic design, which further supports the audience’s ability to understand the characters.
This play hinges on the audience really learning the characters and what has caused them to become the kind of people they are – all in 90 minutes. With a set that is almost static and an all adult cast, Garner found a way to take his audience all the way back to the childhood of the Clark kids.
As the play unfolds, we are connected with quirks and concerns of each character and their ways of coping with their own circumstances. Be it religion or prescription drugs or some other mechanism, Mental highlights the fact that every human being has to find a way to deal with the complicated realities of their own life.
Dr. Bell, a marriage counselor played by Ben Reese, sums up one of the main thrusts of the play in an aside to the audience, “Who a person is is a complicated question.”
“Every person is the sum of many parts,” Dr. Bell goes on to say as the audience observes how all those parts can add up to a complex human being. It was these few lines that stuck with me after the play as I thought about a variety of people in my life, past and present, and what circumstances and experiences brought them to be the kind of people they are.
Amy Clark, the eldest of the Clark siblings, and the one who feels the pressure to be stable because of her family’s instability, makes some conclusions based on her observations that may very well apply to all of us, “Maybe we are so mental about what we think life should be, we forget to enjoy the life we actually have.”
Mental is a raw, yet relatable story, the contents of which will linger with me for some time. It asks us all to slow down in how we make judgments on and understand the behavior of those around us.
As Garner notes in the playbill, “If we can refrain from judging [people] and learn to listen; listen to their stories, where they come from, who their family is, what contributed to making them who they are, maybe we wouldn’t have to diagnose so many people as mental, maybe we would learn to live with the complicated realities of our human frailty.”
I can’t think of a better illustration to support Garner’s encouragement than the story of Mental.