O’Neill Foundation to feature plays on gender gap, mental health
By Lou Fancher
An event hosted by the Eugene O’Neill Foundation next weekend presents staged readings of two short, 20th century plays that address gender through the lens of psychology.
“Profiles in Courage: Men, Women and Mental Illness” will include a post-show panel discussion with the directors, actors and scholars in the field of mental health.
Foundation Artistic Director Eric Fraisher Hayes directs “The Rescue” by Rita Creighton Smith; San Francisco-based Symmetry Theatre Company Artistic Director Chloe Bronzan leads a cast of three actors in a reading of O-Neill’s “Shell Shock.” The plays were written as projects for George Pierce Baker’s playwriting workshop at Harvard University during the early years of World War I. They debuted in 1918 at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Hayes says Symmetry’s mission to lift women’s stories onto a level playing field with men’s stories. With one female and one male playwright as a balanced platform, the gender-equal directing team hired an equal number of male and female actors and deliberately chose to direct the play written by a person of the opposite gender.
“The Rescue” presents three women grappling with inherited madness. Despite the veneer of a polite Edwardian setting, two elderly women must address complicated twists of logic and tests of self-definition as their young niece begins to demonstrate the family’s mental illness.
“Shell Shock” has a World War I veteran relying on the friendship of an army doctor and a conversation with a fellow soldier to process trauma he has experienced.
The panel experts are one female, one male. Megan Amanda Miller is a licensed Mental Health Counselor and an attorney who specializes in investigating campus and workplace discrimination and harassment. Scott Wallin is on faculty in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His research and teaching includes contemporary theater and disabilities, theories of acting and directing for stage, and how theater reflects and influences societal understand of madness and mental health.
Hayes expects the panelists to extend the scope of the audience discussion beyond the parameters explored in the two plays. Bronzan suggests the intersection of gender and mental health issues offers intriguing subject matter and opens a window on history and how public perception has changed — or not.
“Shell Shock was written before PTSD was recognized as a legitimate disorder, so it’s rather prolific that O’Neill was writing about this issue,” says Bronzan. “We have obviously made progress in diagnosing mental illnesses in veterans. The lack of progress seems to lie in the lasting social construct of toxic masculinity.”
Although the characters converse, Bronzan says they skirt “unmanly” dialogue and avoid deep confession. “The same limitations appear to inhibit men today — often when talking with other men — in ways that do not necessarily hinder women’s conversations with one another,” he said.
In O’Neill’s portrayal, gender simultaneously weaves connections and yields divisions.
Likewise, Hayes was struck by the fact that mental illness was embedded — inherited — in the women in Smith’s play, but caused by external facts — a war injury — in O’Neill’s work.
“While we no longer live in the age of ‘hysteria,’ I am interested in looking at where those notions have gone,” he says. “PTSD is still an issue, which is clearly a theme in the ‘male’ play. And the legacy of ‘hysteria’ or madness and whether women are to be believed or are just ’emotional,’ is still an issue. That said, I think we have made progress. These issues are not closeted anymore. But there is still much to be done.”
One obvious thing to do is to continue to talk about mental health and to confront and contest gender inequities in work, domestic and public life. The plays are a jumping off point for broad subject panel discussions. Hayes says that although the post-show talk will be directed, the conversations are designed to be casual and to follow audience interest and participants’ collective, gender-equal expertise.