04/19/2014 01:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Boys in the Attic

Anna Russell used to say that "The best thing about opera is that you can say and do absolutely anything -- as long as you sing it!" And, in all honesty, the operatic repertoire is riddled with thrillingly melodramatic depictions of suicide:

  • A beloved singer jumps off the parapet of Rome's historic Castel Sant'Angelo in Puccini's Tosca.
  • A soldier drowns himself after killing his wife in Berg's Wozzeck.
  • A procession of nuns climbs the steps to a guillotine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites.
  • A depressed young poet suffering from unrequited love shoots himself in Massenet's Werther.
  • A Druid priestess burns to death in sacrificial flames at the end of Bellini's Norma.
  • A grieving groom stabs himself to death upon hearing of his bride's sudden demise in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

  • An infatuated young woman throws herself off a cliff in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.
  • An impassioned teenager poisons himself after discovering the seemingly dead body of his girlfriend in a tomb in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette.
  • Having been driven mad by the erratic behavior of her intended, Ophelia drowns herself in Thomas's Hamlet.
  • A jealous and humiliated military hero stabs himself to death after strangling his wife in Verdi's Otello.
  • The cunning Queen of ancient Egypt clasps a venomous snake to her breast in Barber's Antony and Cleopatra.
  • An outcast takes his fishing boat out to sea and sinks it in Britten's Peter Grimes.
  • A young Japanese mother who has given up her child commits hara-kiri in Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

"Let him die with honor who cannot live with honor," sings Cio-Cio-San. But when someone commits suicide in a contemporary drama, the decedent's unexpected (and often incomprehensible) death leaves an aching wound for the surviving family members. Parents keep wondering what caused their child to kill himself. Spouses and siblings lose sleep trying to think if there was anything they could have done to prevent an aggrieved woman from taking her own life.

Depression is a mental disorder which can sap a person's desire, twist his logic, and isolate him from those who might be able to help. Ann Brenoff's recent article entitled Depression, A Kitchen Knife, and Phil Hoffman offers a heart-rending example of how someone can fall down a rabbit hole and end up in the depths of despair with little hope of climbing back to the surface.

Two recent Bay Area productions included characters whose lives were haunted by the suicide of their son. The ghost of one son appears onstage; the other is never seen. How the various members of each community responded to an untimely death of someone they had known and loved provides key twists to the plot of each drama. By sheer coincidence, both plays are set in suburbs of Chicago.

* * * * * * * * * *

In 2011, when American Conservatory Theater presented the West Coast premiere of Clybourne Park, much of the attention focused on the piece of real estate which sits at the core of Bruce Norris's dramedy. Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 hit, A Raisin in the Sun, the play's two acts are separated by 50 years but take place in the same living room.

Directed by Michael Butler, Center Rep's new production of Clybourne Park offered Bay area audiences a second chance to examine the effects of racism, gentrification, and generational shifts as depicted by the award-winning playwright.

The first act takes place in 1959, in the home of Russ (Richard Howard) and Bev (Lynda DiVito), an aggrieved middle-aged couple -- living in an all-white suburb of Chicago -- whose son hung himself in his bedroom after returning home from the Korean War. The couple has struggled to cope with the lack of support Kenneth (Timothy Redmond) received from a community in which no one would hire a veteran who confessed to having killed people during his wartime service. Nor has Russ been able to tolerate the idiotic platitudes he keeps hearing from their affable but useless priest.


Richard Howard (Russ) and Lynda DiVito (Bev) in Act I of
Clybourne Park (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Much of the drama in Act I revolves around the revelation that the couple has sold their home to the Youngers, an African American family. One of their acquaintances from the neighborhood association, Karl Lindner (Craig Marker), is a clueless racist with a deaf and very pregnant wife (Kendra Lee Oberhauser). Karl attempts to question Bev's maid, Francine (Velina Brown) and her husband, Albert (Adrian N. Roberts), about whether they would feel out of place moving into an all-white neighborhood.


Velina Brown as Francine (Act I) and Lena (Act II) in
Clybourne Park (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

The second act takes place 50 years later, as another wave of gentrification is threatening Clybourne Park. This time, the clueless Steve (Craig Marker) and his pregnant wife Lindsey (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) want to make physical alterations to the home they've just purchased. However, Lena Younger's great granddaughter (Velina Brown) -- who has been named after the domestic worker who purchased the house in Act I -- worries about how their architectural plans will change the face of the neighborhood.


J.B. Wilson's set designs for Act I (bottom) and Act II (top)
of Clybourne Park (Photo by: Lyle Barrer)

I always find it fascinating to see how second or third viewings of a drama can change one's perceptions of the piece. When I first saw Clybourne Park, one of the key impressions was how much trivia people were obsessed with knowing despite the fact that it left them clueless about the larger picture ("If you're so smart, how come you're so stupid?").

Seeing the play again in Walnut Creek left a different impression, largely because of Craig Marker's powerful portrayals of two clueless, arrogant fools whose assumption of white male privilege prevents them from having the good sense to shut their stupid mouths before making a bad situation worse. With the second act set in 2009 (with cell phones being used by most of the characters), it quickly becomes obvious that not one of these people is capable of -- or interested in -- listening to anyone else's issues. Gentrification has come loaded with the rampant narcissism and bloated sense of self-importance the Gen-X and Gen-Y crowds bring to the table.


Kendra Lee Oberhauser (Lindsey) and Craig Marker (Steve)
in Act II of Clybourne Park (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

When Lena mentions that the reason that her great grandmother was able to purchase the home at less than market value might have been the circumstances surrounding Kenneth's death, Lindsey freaks out at the thought of raising a child in a house where someone committed suicide (even if the traumatic event happened 50 years ago).

While Norris's script gives audiences plenty of food for thought with regard to racism and gentrification, Kenneth's suicide claims center stage during the play's poignant final moments as a plumber (Richard Howard) forces open a foot locker containing Kenneth's belongings that Russ and Bev had buried under the crape myrtle tree in the back yard before moving to their new home.

Because Clybourne Park double casts actors as characters separated by five decades, it requires some strong ensemble work in order for both sets of characters to shine. Lynda DiVito had some strong moments as the vulnerable Bev in Act I which contrasted with her tough real estate attorney in Act II. Richard Howard delivered two widely disparate characters: the grieving Russ in Act I and the loudmouth plumber in Act II.


Richard Howard portrays the grieving Russ in 1959 and Dan the
plumber in 2009 in Clybourne Park (Photo by: Alessandra Mello).

Adrian N. Roberts had some delicious moments as Albert (Act I) and Alfred (Act II) with Velina Brown appearing as his two wives. Although Kendra Lee Oberhauser handled two different pregnancies with comic flair, Timothy Redmond was the only member of the cast to appear in three roles (as the friendly priest in 1959, as a gay member of the neighborhood association in 2009, and as the ghost of the suicidal Kenneth). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * * *

Shortly after being suspended from school by his teacher, a young teen named Gidion commits suicide. Because the Aurora Theatre Company asked critics not to divulge any of the personal secrets or plot twists in Gidion's Knot (an exquisitely crafted suspense drama by Johnna Adams), I'm going to tiptoe my way through this review as gingerly as possible. Let me strongly recommend, however, that you make time to read Soraya Chemaly's provocative article entitled "Why Are So Many Boys Leaving High School Thinking Rape Is Funny?" and think about how it applies -- not just to high school and college students -- but to an extremely precocious fifth grader.

The action takes place in what (up until very recently) had been Gidion's classroom as his teacher, Heather Clark (Stacy Ross), sits grading papers while waiting for a parent-teacher conference. When there is finally a knock on the classroom door, it's the last person Heather was expecting to see: Gidion's mother.

Although she hasn't slept in 72 hours, Corryn Fell (Jamie Jones) is nowhere as distraught as one might expect. While she's twitchy, defensive, and demanding answers about what led to her son's suspension, her aggressive behavior demonstrates the unconditional love this divorced mother (who teaches epic Gaelic poetry at a nearby university) has for a son who was just beginning to show some creative writing talent before he took his own life.

The question of whether Gidion's essay should be regarded as a warning sign or an indication of budding talent had special resonance for me. When I was a student at Midwood High School, I had a job manning the PBX 507B cordless switchboard in the main office during my lunch period.

A PBX 507B cordless switchboard

One of the creative writing assignments from my English teacher was to write a character study of someone in our daily lives. I dutifully drafted a less than flattering portrait of the Principal's secretary. Because my father also taught at Midwood, my English teacher showed him the essay out of concern that I might be headed for trouble (he was happy to make sure it went no further).

Back in the early 1960s, girls were supposed to be interested in things like poetry, literature, and art history. Because my father taught biology, I was being guided down a math and science track. Many years later, when I was attempting to earn a living as a freelance writer, I looked back on that incident and realized that no one ever saw that essay as an indication that I should work on developing my writing skills.

The action in Gidion's Knot takes place in a middle school classroom in which a clock is running in real time. With 20 movable desks designed for small people, Nina Ball's unit set has the kind of cozy ambiance which would encourage children to participate in group activities.

Alas, sometimes "sharing" your creativity isn't the smartest move. As tension builds under Jon Tracy's deft and meticulous direction, clues to the mysterious cause of Gidion's death slowly start to unravel.

  • Some of these clues are charming insights into character; others reveal brazen acts and horrific fantasies.
  • Some moments reflect the limitations of two adults caught in a tense cat-and-mouse game of withholding critical information; others reveal how a mother's unconditional love can blind her to the warning signs reflected in her son's writing.

The two women facing off during the parent-teacher conference are polar opposites.

  • Heather is protective of her students and careful to respect other people's boundaries while Corryn has the subtlety of the proverbial bull in a china shop.
  • Heather is well aware of the legal ramifications of the situation while Corryn is more than willing to bully her son's teacher in order to get some solid answers.


Heather (Stacy Ross) reads Gidion's essay to the boy's mother
(Jamie Jones) in Gidion's Knot (Photo by: David Allen)

Masterfully constructed, Gidion's Knot offers a tour de force to the actor portraying Corryn. Jamie Jones rose to the occasion with a bravura performance that elicited gasps from the audience. As Heather read Gidion's essay out loud, it was puzzling to watch the lack of emotion on Jones's face until, at the end of the essay, her reaction was repulsively shocking.


Jamie Jones is Corryn and Stacy Ross is Heather in
Gidion's Knot (Photo by: David Allen)

Gidion's Knot is a 75-minute roller coaster ride featuring two riveting performances that are guaranteed to challenge any audience.The playwright is quick to stress that:

"My mind likes complexity, not simplicities. In a lot of theatres, the strongest powerhouses are women. As they age, the roles go away. I wanted to fill that gap with roles for women that were not necessarily about relationships, and with voices and situations that are a little unusual."

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape