By Alice Birch; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Produced by Atlantic Theatre Company
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.15.20
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
by Lexi Orphanos on 2.18.20
Carla Gugino and Ava Briglia in Anatomy of a Suicide. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.
BOTTOM LINE: Alice Birch's new play bleeds three generations of women together to examine transgenerational trauma, and how we might protect ourselves from it.
In Alice Birch's Anatomy of a Suicide, receiving its U.S. premiere at the Atlantic Theater, three generations of women—mother Carol (Carla Gugino), daughter Anna (Celeste Arias, with Ava Briglia as young Anna), and granddaughter Bonnie (Gabby Beans)—all share the stage in a sound demonstration of how subtly our bodies keep the score when it comes to the repercussions of trauma.
Carol has just attempted suicide; she cooked a freezer full of meals for her husband, consumed a lethal concoction, and took a razor blade to both wrists. On the surface, Carol is a seemingly traditional housewife who smokes like a chimney and has a husband, John (Richard Topol), who wants nothing short of a picture-perfect life together. Carol, however, is painfully direct in voicing her inability to continue living, as everyone in her life continues to ignore her psychological needs, offering her constant, often insultingly superficial advice on how to find purpose in living. Unfortunately, one such piece of advice seems to stick: find deeper purpose by having a baby!
Sure enough, Carol and John have a beautiful, brilliant baby girl, Anna. However, baby Anna is just enough for Carol to scrape by on; she vows to leave this world as soon as Anna is old enough to be independent. Spliced alongside Carol’s increasingly despondent life, adult Anna is open about her own resorting to hard drugs being a direct result of her mother’s suicide.
Juxtaposed with Anna’s tragic rise and fall is the life of her own daughter, Bonnie, who seems to be the most catatonic of them all. Bonnie is a modern woman who can run an ER with grace and conviction, but numbs over when attempting to piece apart the massive internal trauma she grapples with at the molecular level. How can she live peacefully knowing the generational trauma that has haunted her family can only continue within her, and worst of all, potentially be passed down to another daughter, the next in a tortured cycle?
Alice Birch is, inarguably, the only titan of a playwright to be trusted with effectively piecing together this deeply psychological, hot-to-the-touch drama. Her style remains massively dependent on the full company maintaining a white-knuckle pace in forging ahead with the story, dealing in the Birch style many of us have come to know and love through plays like Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, and completely curtailing any opportunities for the script or performances to risk romanticizing suicide, depression, or self harm. The shamelessly fast pace instills the audience with a feeling of trust, as though our intelligence is being trusted to piece together the many things tastefully left unsaid. This choice provides a refreshing, high-concept format delightfully straying from the usual spoon-feeding of narrative.
The cast delivers knockout performances throughout, thankfully never shying from fantastic use of comedy when severely needed. Carla Gugino, a seasoned veteran of stage and film, refuses to rest on her laurels in her portrayal of Carol; she relentlessly, painstakingly makes the harder choices in every scene, several times playing silence so strongly that she steals focus on a stage occupied with turbulent scenes. Celeste Arias brings Anna to life by opting for extreme emotional rawness and vulnerability, maintaining a childlike awe at the world around her, one she’s often simply trying to be a normal member of. In delicious contrast, Gabby Beans’ portrayal of Bonnie is pragmatic and cold, concealing an ocean of trauma beneath her numbed-over facade.
Above all, the team behind Anatomy of a Suicide deserves praise for taking professional precautions in staging a show centered around extremely sensitive, potentially triggering content. Obviously, stories that end in suicide are often tragic, but intense tragedy can easily be mistaken for high theatricality. Instead of just showing us suicide, Alice Birch and Lileana Blain-Cruz expertly weave a true thesis on the anatomy of a suicide: what are its parts, and how do they work, then evolve? Beyond thoughtful craft, the Atlantic has also included resources within the playbill, including phone numbers for suicide prevention hotlines.
(Anatomy of a Suicide plays at Atlantic's Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, through March 15, 2020. The running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2 and 7. Tickets are $71.50-$96.50. For tickets and more information visit atlantictheater.org or call 866-811-4111.)
Anatomy of a Suicide is by Alice Birch. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Set Design by Mariana Sanchez. Costume Design by Kaye Voyce. Lighting Design by Jiyoun Chang. Sound Design by Rucyl Frison. Projections by Hannah Wasileski. Wigs, Hair, and Makeup by Tommy Kurzman. Animals by William Berloni. Production Stage Manager is Egypt Dixon.
The cast is Celeste Arias, Jason Babinsky, Gabby Beans, Ava Briglia, Carla Gugino, Julian Elijah Martinez, Jo Mei, Vince Nappo, Miriam Silverman, and Richard Topol.