Standing on My Knees

Chicago Sun-Times,  May 3, 2000  by Lucia Mauro

Fourth Wall Productions

Through May 27

at Wright Junior College (Events Building), 4300 N. Narragansett

Tickets, $10-$12. (773) 481-8535


The elusive nature of mental illness creates a slippery slope for playwrights to navigate. Adding to the dramatist's difficulty are the unique circumstances of individuals who battle an infinite range of disorders. "Standing on My Knees," John Olive's exploration of one woman's battle with schizophrenia, offers no attempt to provide answers or seek closure. Instead, it delves into the complex issues surrounding a disease for which there is no cure.

Fourth Wall Productions' straightforward staging reinforces the tragic dimensions of a story that may never have a happy ending. But under Stephen A. Donart's honest direction, humor and heart also work their way into Olive's tale about daily survival. There are no epiphanies or weepy reunions_only the affirmation that the main character and her caretakers will eventually adjust and learn how to live with this condition.

The play centers on Catherine, a young poet who suffers from schizophrenia. Recently released from the hospital, she is trying to cope with living independently. To give Catherine the semblance of a "normal" life, her therapist prescribes Thorazine, a potent anti- psychotic drug, to help silence the voices ravaging inside her head. But the medication gradually silences her creative voice.

When Catherine becomes romantically involved with Robert, a stockbroker, she fears that her illness will disrupt her temporary contentment. Catherine's Type-A personality editor, Alice, pushes her to write again and even hires her as an assistant.

But everyone around Catherine fails to comprehend her dilemma: She can continue on the Thorazine and never write again, or stop taking her medication and suffer a serious mental collapse.

Robert, who tries to conceal his own low self-esteem, naively thinks that Catherine can be cured. He seems to be drawn to the idea of mental illness as a kind of romantic expression. Alice, who's fighting her own numerous demons, remains close to Catherine to remind herself what she is capable of becoming. The psychologist, with her cold interrogations, only aggravates the problems.

Olive draws us into Catherine's universe and effectively conveys the sense of utter aloneness she feels. Donart, a vocational coordinator for the Thresholds psychiatric rehabilitation program, has drawn on his personal experiences. He elicits unsentimental performances from the extraordinary Jamie Virostko as Catherine and a tender Aaron Cedolia as Robert. Virostko never wallows in self-pity, opting instead for a provocative blend of resilience and vulnerability. As the high-powered Alice, Jeanine O'Connell, however, fails to convince. Virginia C. Morrison as the insincere therapist takes a robotic approach.

Scenic designer Carl Ulaszek reflects Catherine's agitated mental state through a backdrop of steel wires that reverberate like the strains of works by Bela Bartok and John Cage_some of Catherine's favorite 20th century composers.

Note: An exhibit by artists with mental illnesses, sponsored by the Awakenings Project, is on display in the lobby.

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