The end of your life starts slowly, and after some incomprehensible incident. Everything seems dreamlike. They are talking to you – the policeman, the lawyer, the judge, the doctor – and you can understand some of what they’re saying, but you blank out on the rest. You are going to have to leave — and leave your life and what you hold dear in it behind. You pack a suitcase. This won’t last too long, you tell yourself. It’s like going to a hotel. The Willard – isn’t that a hotel? It sounds like a hotel. And you walk through the door, and the darkness begins.
The Willard Asylum (later the Willard State Hospital and Willard Psychiatric Center), sitting on Lake Seneca in the poetically-named town of Ovid, New York, was an enormous facility – in its time, the largest mental asylum in the United States. There were more than a hundred buildings on the thousand-acre campus, and a train went through it. It served patients who were a threat to themselves and others – criminally insane murderers as well as potential suicides – but its clientele also consisted of people who today would be treated by talk therapy or antidepressants. The Willard served our purposes during a hard time.
Not a ready subject for a musical, eh? And yet Julianne Wick Davis has written one – a cracking good one, with intelligent lyrics and haunting music, and its debut will continue at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA through December 1.
The Willard Suitcases at American Shakespeare Center closes December 1, 2019. Details and tickets at American Shakespeare Center
The Willard facility, now a collection of decaying buildings owned, but not used, by a local prison, might well have been forgotten to history except for the fact that a Willard employee, Beverly Courtright, discovered four hundred suitcases in a dusty attic after the facility closed. They belonged to the Willard patients who now resided in its immense cemetery, underneath markers which contained numbers but no names. Each suitcase contained tantalizing clues about the owner’s life before it was subdued by the mental health system.
These suitcases became of interest to the New York State Museum, which acquired them and periodically displayed a dozen or so. One of these displays piqued the interest of Jon Crispin, a photographer, and he won the Museum’s permission to photograph them, inside and out. Davis saw the suitcases, contacted Crispin, and then wrote The Willard Suitcases.
There was not a whiff of scandal associated with Willard, and when it finally closed down in 1995 there had been no allegations of brutality or mistreatment. Thus Davis writes not about life in the Willard but life before its patients were committed. Some of her stories are hilarious, such as the lament of Agnes (an acrobatic Nancy Anderson) in “Dear President Mr. Herbert Hoover,” who pleads with our befuddled 31st Chief Magistrate to release her from her confinement, notwithstanding her occasional inexplicable acts of violence. Some are heartbreaking, like the story of Anna (Sylvie Davidson, radiating innocence), whose lover (David Anthony Lewis, shrouded and silent in this number) is prone to violent mood swings. And some, like “Saving All My Sugar” (Brandon Carter sings) contain an O. Henry twist; experienced as a song alone it is a simple love ditty, but sung as a story, it is a powerhouse.
And some songs, like “The Silver,” never quite connect with the main theme. Constance Swain delivers a clear picture of a young woman who grew up in poverty and despised it, and despised even more the reason for it. But even the climactic act of the song doesn’t give us a clue as to why she ended up in the Willard.
The songs – this is a sung-through musical, without a stitch of dialogue – flow from character to character, with the actors who aren’t singing quietly grabbing an instrument to accompany the singer. This is an impressive display of virtuosity: every actor appears to be able to play at least two instruments; there is no offstage band. The handoffs are done with meticulous precision (Artistic Director Ethan McSweeny helms the production). The stage is cluttered with suitcases (you can win a prize for guessing how many) but the actors dance around them gracefully and easily. Though the storytelling has no through line – this is more a book of short stories than a novel – no one breaks character. For example, Lewis, who will play a man with one leg in the second Act, hobbles onto the stage in the first; he is being that character in that moment.
You don’t normally think of The American Shakespeare Center as a home for musicals – they’ve done only one in the past – and the Blackfriars theater offers a surprisingly intimate space. The singers are unmiked and the musicians are not amplified. This usually works out – Anderson, Carter, Davidson, Lewis, Swain, John Harrell, Annabelle Rollison, Zoe Speas and Chris Johnson are easily audible above the music – but not always. I longed to hear what “Spirits” was all about. Because of the exquisite and imaginative direction, I understood that it was about a drunk driver, but the how and the why was lost to me, mostly because Ronald Román-Meléndez’s voice lacked the power to reach over the music. In most musicals this is not an issue – the lyrics are the least important part – but here the lyrics are so clever, and the plotting so intricate, that hearing them clearly is essential.
Although not every performer had the musical chops for Davis’ challenging melodies, the acting was first rate. Anderson showed impressive range. In addition to her antic plea for rescue from Herbert Hoover, she plays a heavily rouged woman of a mighty age, who reminisces about a glorious past (possibly fictional) while she lusts after the postman (Carter). Thus she has bathos and pathos down flat.
But to me the most powerful presence was Lewis, who looked (and I mean this as a compliment) like he belonged in some sort of confinement throughout. Slope-jawed, heavy-lidded and muscular, he is a magnetic presence even in the first Act, in which he utters not a word. As doomed Anna’s malevolent lover, he radiates threat throughout, though we never see his face. Even when he plays the bass, he never seems less than dangerous.
n the second Act, he has the best number in the entire production: “Phantoms”, a song about Henry, a man who loses his leg in the first War and tries, and fails, to pick up the remains of his life. The act which brings him to Willard is horrifying and funny at the same time; when the judge says “you’re not all there” Henry agrees wholeheartedly.
Willard Asylum, and its successor institutions, was a humane place. There was a bowling alley and a movie theater, and the staff generally had crafts and other things for the patients to do. The facility was self-sustaining; patients worked the grounds to grow food. In general, patients had the run of the place, but they could not leave. To go to Willard Asylum generally meant leaving the world you had known to its own devices, forever.
And so Davis follows “Phantoms” with two songs about mortality – “What Will I Wear” a plaintive song by Pearl (Davidson) about how she will be dressed for her post-mortem viewing, and the witty “Final Stop” where Lewis, playing a more modern incarnation of the gravedigger in Hamlet, prepares the final resting place for those who die at Willard, without relatives to collect their bodies.
It has been a long time since the musical comedy was the only type of musical in existence, but Davis’ thoughtful, tuneful piece defies easy classification. Some of the songs were tragic, but some of the songs were about people who needed to go to the Willard (e.g. Harrell’s scary “Say Cheese” or Rollison’s “All in a Day’s Work”). Davis’ work is a musical about life, in all its complications, pleasures, extremities and disappointments. It deserves a wider audience, and if that includes you, come on down.
The Willard Suitcases by Julianne Wick Davis, based on the Willard Asylum Suitcases photographed by Jon Crispin . Directed by Ethan McSweeny . Featuring Nancy Anderson, Leighton Brown, Brandon Carter, Sylvie Davidson, John Harrell, Chris Johnston, David Anthony Lewis, Ronald Román-Meléndez, Annabelle Rollison, Zoe Speas, and Constance Swain . Costume design by Tracy Christensen . Stage manager: Sarah Dale Lewis, assisted by Adrienne Johnson Butler . Produced by American Shakespeare Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.