Written by Natalie Piegari (@nataliepiegari), Assistant to the Artistic Director Intern.
In Season 10, Forum brought to the foreground a series of plays dealing with suicide and mental illness. Steve Yockey’s Pluto, Steve Gurgis’ Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Aditi Kapil’s Agnes Under the Big Top and Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot -- all of these share stories of people who commit suicide - the outlier being Anu Yadav’s Meena’s Dream.
This was by grim happenstance -- none of the plays held mental illness as a primary issue and none were picked specifically because of this shared topic. Other issues took the spotlight: immigration, gun control, healthcare.
This tells us several things: there is growing interest in mental health and lack thereof. That there is an awareness of the steady and horrifying suicide rates in this country. There is a need to share questions with society at large, hoping for an answer. Artists of all disciplines have always been drawn to darkness, and these plays are no exception.
Add to that Forum’s dedication to unraveling and revealing the heart of the human condition and it has been quite the season.
The Season 10 plays are not the first plays in the theatrical canon to deal with this topic. Drama loves mental illness, loves insanity - to be colloquial -- loves “craziness.” It is an excuse to write characters who exist in a heightened sense of reality. But what we see onstage is so often not the case. Many people dealing with mental illness suffer quietly, struggling in stillness. Unsure of what they are even experiencing when they feel too sad to get out of bed. Or that terrible empty loneliness, or the rage that builds hot in the chest. There is a vicious stigma - self, structural, and social - against those with mental illness that runs deep in the veins of our society. As such, it is important to present these quieter stories and conversations onstage as well. Mental illness is challenging to talk about and so people often simply don’t. Not so with the plays of Season 10.
In Gurgis’ Judas, there is a discussion of the issue with Dr. Sigmund Freud. In it, Freud concludes that one who commits suicide must necessarily have a proclivity for mental illness. The audience is thrown this question in regard to the titular Judas, who hung himself from an olive branch. The man lands in a purgatory of his own creation, for he cannot forgive himself for his crimes - against Jesus and himself. Pluto’s Bailey is silent until he is not. Agnes hides her children in her beautiful stories until she herself starts to believe them and ends her life before her cancer does. Gidion of Gidion’s Knot is trapped in a mire of unknown origin.
What is important about the Season 10 shows is that the characters are treated as individual cases, rather than speaking for an illness as a whole. These plays offer little windows into the hearts of these characters. These plays neither martyr them nor demonize them for their actions but simply offer up questions to the audience that they can answer for themselves.
Or, perhaps for some of our audience members, they provide a reflection in that theatrical mirror: you’re not alone. You are not alone.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK
Washington, DC Suicide Hotline: (703) 527-4077
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention