It would have been easy for Johnna Adams, whose World Builders at Forum Theatre focuses on two drug trials participants being treated for Schizoid Personality Disorder (SPD), to write a play about a misunderstood disease. But the play goes far beyond a mere peek into mental illness, it is a compelling and intimate story that tells truth about human nature through some of the highest class acting and directing work to be found right now on DC stages.
Forum has tagged Adams’ play “a love story” because that is exactly what it is: a story about two people who fall in love despite having a mental illness. SPD is characterized by having an intensely personal and vivid fantasy life into which one withdraws to the exclusion of normal social interaction. These fantasies are the titular “worlds” that Max and Whitney build for themselves, and those same fantasies are what the drug trial is trying to eliminate with what the characters’ term “worldkiller pills.”
The struggle against the drug and the disease, an uncertainty of whether they want to be cured, and fraught sharing of their worlds brings Max and Whitney closer together to make a love story that is enhanced (but not overtaken) by their neuro-atypicality.
Director Amber Jackson has done well to find variations in pace, intensity, and quality of character choices and physicality for her actors. She and her cast have treated Max and Whitney as changeable and impassioned (albeit awkward and introverted) human beings rather than a rigid mold of symptoms.Both actors approach their characters with care and brilliance as well.
Daniel Corey, as Max, presents a crippling introverted young man, with an obsession with a violent and frightening interior world. Corey has a compact, twitchy physicality that loosens with gradual magnificence over the course of the play and his treatment. He makes beautiful small choices, too; the best (but far from the only) example of which is leaning in for a kiss that Whitney never sees, but to an attentive audience member, will tell you everything about his deeply conflicted feelings and the loosening of the social chains that his condition imposes.
Laura C. Harris, as Whitney, contrasts with Corey’s Max nicely. Whitney ignores social convention while Max is frightened by it. Her mannerisms are tic-filled and bird-like while his are rigid and bare which shows in her interior world of sprawling and sexy sci-fi, detailed with a literally maddening obsession. They both use building interior worlds as an escape, but hers is one where life is more interesting and his is one where he is more important.
Harris’ physicality matches Corey’s intensity. While his body tightens like a clenched fist (all interiors and protections), her tightness is more like a spool of thread, taut yet deeply layered. Her perspiration subconsciously tells the audience that apparent calm is a facade that hides animal defensiveness used to protect her unreal fantasy world from the real world. Both of these actors have a rare gift, used to fullest advantage in this production: they are totally present in their bodies, personifying the pinnacle of acting craft.
While I would highly recommend World Builders to any potential theater-goer, young actors should make a point of coming to this show, so that they can see a great and rare example of two actors completely committed to breaking down the physical and psychic barriers of expression.
October 29 – November 21, 2015
at Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D St NW
Washington, DC 20004
1 hour, 35 minutes with no intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $30 – $35 reserved; Pay What You Want cash at door
Deb Sivigny’s design in which these actors’ excellent work is couched is simple, but effective. Wickedly uncomfortable modular benches, instantly recognizable daisy cups, and greasy glossed magazines telegraph the inhospitable hospital-ness of the setting of the play, while scrub-like costumes (which transform over the course of the play into street clothes) echo that message.The lighting manages to imitate the rancid fluorescence of medical offices everywhere, but Lighting Designer Mary Keegan has found ways of playing with color and shadow despite the restrictiveness of her task.
The biggest coup for this production is using Woolly Mammoth’s rehearsal space instead of Forum’s usual Silver Spring venue. It would be nearly impossible to stage a play as intimate and close as World Builders needs to be in the oceanic vastness of the Silver Spring Black Box. Instead, the low ceiling and limited floor space easily and naturally engendered in me feelings of closeness with these characters and their personal fantasy worlds.
That closeness is the whole trick to enjoying this show. World Builders will draw you in closer than an embrace if you let it, and it gave me a moving insight, not into a mental disorder, but into people who fall in love despite their disorder.
Forum Theatre and director Amber Jackson have built a fantastic and intensely personal world, avoiding the classic pitfalls of the genre to tell a beautiful story of their own.
See it, and see a world masterfully built.
World Builders by Johnna Adams . Directed by Amber Jackson . Featuring Daniel Corey and Laura C. Harris . Set and Costume Design: Deb Sivigny . Sound Design: Thomas Sowers . Lighting Design: Mary Keegan . Stage Manager: Laura Wood . Dramaturg: Maegan Clearwood . Produced by Forum Theatre . Reviewed by Alan Katz.