Angela Neff grew up in a large family with a larger than life father. Unfortunately, his exploits which stemmed from a bi-polar disorder became increasingly destructive and eventually led to hospitalizations, divorce, and suicide. [Note: that’s not a spoiler, it’s in the program.] Writer-performer Neff gives a descriptive solo presentation of scenes from her life, but leaves out too much of her own feelings and insights for the story to be as affecting as it could be.
After Bob Neff got out of the Navy, he married, and fathered seven children in ten years. He could be a charming man, his daughter tells us, who played the guitar, sang with enthusiasm, grilled burgers, drove their 1948 woody station wagon with his feet, and surfed. He also could be a completely unpredictable alcoholic, prone to chain smoking and religious extremism.
Angela Neff plays roughly twenty characters while relating episodes from her life, mostly from her childhood. She speaks in a voice that is a little soft with a tinge of wistfulness when describing details of a by-gone era such as when Mom furnished their living room with a brown naugahyde couch by saving Blue Chip stamps, or hearing that “Daddy’s in the hospital,” eating salami sandwiches under an oak tree during a Sunday visit to the mental asylum, and being taken to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Yet too often the audience is left to project its own thoughts into the situation without knowing how Angela was feeling at the time. When did Angela first hear the word bi-polar? How did she feel when her father acted out in public? Was she lonely when her parents divorced?
This piece reminds me of longer version of the types of works performed by the non-profit “Plays for Living” where the drama about a challenging social issue is followed by a long facilitated discussion. Indeed, the few minutes of post-performance Q & A between Angela Neff and the audience was very interesting and included details left unanswered by her work. We learned how her father made her feel (she felt very loved by him but he “scared the shit out of me”), whether she forgave him for leaving her through suicide (yes), reasons why bi-polars self-medicate yet are reluctant to stay on their prescriptions, and the hereditary nature of the illness.
The narrative details are interesting, especially for anyone who has experienced the impact of mental illness within their family or circle of friends. But as the piece continued, it was more and more frustrating that Neff refused to reveal the story that was just beneath the surface. To quote an old television character, this solo piece too often was “Just the facts, ma’am.” Another Picnic at the Asylum leaves the audience wanting more.
Another Picnic at the Asylum
Written and Performed by Angela L. Neff
Directed by Mark Kenward
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 75 minutes
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Did you see the show? What did you think?