A Fringe Festival invites artists to take risks, and undertake radically innovative techniques to remake storytelling anew. In Thicker than Water, writer-actor Annie Houston uses the riskiest, most radical, and oldest storytelling technique of all: honesty.
This is a story about a mature woman – let’s call her Annie – a teacher and an actor, who one day comes to take her sister Allison to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Allison is a woman who has spent her life fighting a losing battle against an unspecified mental disease, probably schizophrenia. Her apartment is now in such disarray that her landlord will no longer tolerate her being there. Annie has her own problems – she has an audition scheduled for later in the day to play a second understudy in a Shakespeare Theatre production – but she understands that it has fallen on her to take Allison away from her despoiled apartment, and bring her to a place where she will be safe.
Much of the piece is given over to Annie’s effort to give the audience, who she has morphed into prospective renters of the apartment, a context in which to understand Allison as a real, even gifted, human being. It is easy to look away from the mentally ill, who confuse and frighten us, but Annie looks full into her sister’s face, and invites us to do so too.
Houston is Allison as well, all anger and slyness. She accuses Annie of jealousy, in order to mask her own seething rage and envy. Allison is a very recognizable type of profoundly deranged woman who has nonetheless, through wit and almost superhuman effort, managed to live independently through most of her life. But not all: Annie recalls with great sadness the days when Allison lived under a tree at 7th and Independence, and there was nothing Annie could do for her.
The alternating narratives are punctuated by images projected on a bedsheet. Sometimes these are images of the physical environment: a window bay in Allison’s apartment, say, or the majestic tree that looks like a temple just outside it. At other times they reflect the emotional environment: the kaleidoscopic image of a woman being split in half, or folding in on herself. For the seamless progression of this background, and for Houston’s flawless stage movement (she transforms from one character to the other with wonderful economy), credit is due to director Steven Scott Mazzola.
Some of the narratives go on too long – it seemed uncharacteristic to have Allison give statistics about mental illness, and the recitation of the sisters’ complicated family history is probably unnecessary, as schizophrenia is genetically based – but on the whole they are tight, compelling, and occasionally heartbreaking.
As we listen to Allison, we begin to understand the truth behind the clichéd link between art and madness. She rapturously describes a time when she was young, in Greece and in love. She wrote poetry…slept on the beach…dumpster-dived for food…begged. It was the best time of her life; perhaps the only time in which she was happy. The rest of her life she recalls as a constant battle with people who were telling her what to do.
Art, like madness, yearns to be free of restraint and criticism. It is a sobering message to the artist and the theater reviewer alike, put in a form the American Century Theater is doubtlessly proud to present, and a fitting way to close down the beloved old Warehouse Theatre, which has so long served as a temple of truth, for those who had something to say.
- Running Time: 75 minutes
- Thicker than Water has closed.
Rating: Four Baldacchinos