4.48 Psychosis is haunting and poetic
Trigger Warning: Discussion of sexual assault and suicide
“What do you offer your friends to make them so supportive?” The stage lights come up and the lone woman on the stage plays this refrain from her smartphone. Standing on a coffee table she rotates slowly so that each side of the audience can hear the phrase as it repeats. “What do you offer your friends to make them so supportive?”
This weekend, 4.48 Psychosis, a hauntingly poetic play written by British playwright Sarah Kane opened in the John Wells Studio, the smallest theater space on the first floor of the Purnell Center for the Arts. The play, written as a stream-of-consciousness epic poem without any discernible characters or plot, was brought to life in starkly intimate detail by senior directing student John Moriarty, and intensely performed by junior acting student Mckenna Slone and senior acting student Zach Fifer. With a set created by scenic design senior, Nathan Brown, the audience is allowed to look in on a few days, months, or years of one woman’s struggle with depression.
4.48 Psychosis was first produced by the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in London in June 2000. This was the last work of Kane’s, who, after a life-long battle with depression, hung herself with shoelaces in her hospital room a year before her play would be produced. This current production was influenced and shaped heavily by the real life experiences of Carnegie Mellon students through the Sarah Project, an initiative aimed at discussing issues of mental health through art.
From the moment the audience approaches the door to the studio, it is clear that production has taken a lot of care in engaging with material that can be mentally taxing on audiences. Outside the theater are posted several notices that warn patrons to practice self-care while watching the show. The notices also provide trigger warnings of sexual assault and suicide. These details, along with a message from CaPS on the door (echoed in an insert in the program), are indicative of these artists’ understanding of the play and its potential to take an emotional toll.
The play starts in darkness, and indeed in darkness is where Moriarty’s direction is the most effective. In darkness and silence we hear Ali Miller (Slone) enter her apartment and in darkness we hear her rape occur. This series of actions sets the tone for the 100-minute show as we see Ali struggle with the aftermath of her assault, both alone and with her doctor played by Fifer. There is so much that Moriarty’s production gets right depicting serious depression and the toll it takes on people. He not only touches on the sadness, but also on the anger that anyone who has struggled with depression or who has loved someone with depression is all too familiar with. At one point Ali echoes this feeling outright, “Depression is anger; it’s what you did, who was there, and what you’re blaming.” The credit goes as much to Slone, who is able to believably portray catatonic quiet and incurable rage with equal enthusiasm.
Brown’s set also contributes greatly to the experience closing the distance between audience and performer with his catwalk set. Ali’s apartment spans across the studio with audience sitting on either side. On one end of the set her bed and posters of various historical and fictional women like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Daenerys Targaryen. In the center, a desk with two cushions, and on the other side a door and several cork boards hung with bits of this and that, most notably a Carnegie Mellon flag. The effect makes it so that as an audience member you are watching other audience members as much as you are watching the action on stage. And as Ali makes several attempts throughout the show to connect with the audience members, at one pointing showing them a scribbled page from her diary and at various points making direct eye contact with people, the other side becomes a mirror equally implicit to Ali’s suffering and equally silent. The point is driven home when Ali pulls out a sweatshirt from Pi Kappa Alpha, a fraternity on Carnegie Mellon’s campus. She could be any number of survivors walking by on our campus, reminding the audience that by doing nothing to stop the dangerous culture of sexual assault on campus we are almost as culpable as the attackers themselves.
While the play got so much right, as with art that attempts to grapple with complex issues, 4.48 falters in some respects. Fifer, though incredible in presence, isn’t really given much to do or say that wouldn’t have been just as organic coming from the mouth of Ali. Similarly, the way his relationship turns from professional to sexual and then to professional again sends some potentially harmful messages about how assault survivors can begin to heal. After an extended sex scene between the two characters, Slone’s Ali seems much more positive and only sets on the path to kill herself again when he then rejects her. This feels like the production is putting the healing of mental illness on the onus of the person’s loved ones, when anyone who’s had experience with this knows that mental illness can’t be loved away. Healing is an incredibly individualistic journey that loved ones can only support. It is worth mentioning however that the lead up to this sex scene was one of the best examples I’ve seen of using consent to initiate sexual contact. Multiple times we see Ali’s hand rest on an article of the doctor’s clothing, making eye contact with him and only removing the article after he nods yes.
4.48 Psychosis was an intense delve into one person’s struggle with depression. The production, and whatever else comes from the Sarah Project, is a welcome addition to a campus like Carnegie Mellon, where issues like sexual assault and mental illness are still ignored by much of the campus community.