By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
In its December 2015 issue, Harper’s Magazine published The Bed-Rest Hoax: The case against a venerable pregnancy treatment. The essay’s author, Alexandra Kleeman, was the person at rest, and was taking her doctor’s prescribed leave in the Pacific Northwest. She writes in detail of the mental prison she assumes while on bed-rest, and the decline of her body.
The Yellow Wallpaper, a 6,000-word story on a similar theme by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was published 123 years ago. For all you nonbelievers in equal rights, this is to say in print that not a whole lot has changed.
But CoHo’s production of Sue Mach’s new play The Yellow Wallpaper isn’t about that. It’s a psychological thriller that will leave you feeling like the pit of your stomach was ripped out and lost down a hole. Even if you haven’t been a woman who’s been medically sent to “rest,” any person who’s ever felt trapped will feel in every synapse of their nervous system the helpless collapse of closing doors as your freedom slips away in fits and starts. Mach has made for the stage the play you see in your mind as you read the original story.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a semi-autobiographical cry for change that Perkins Gilman sent to the pioneering physician who administered his cure, after she suffered from a then-undiagnosed case of postpartum depression. A usual graduate school tract, The Yellow Wallpaper is studied as a look at early American feminism and has much in common with its forerunner, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. Mach takes the platform of Perkins Gilman’s poetic tale of losing every part of herself and confines us in a room that anticipates Sartre’s No Exit and seems to draw from the death chambers of a Brontë novel.
The colors of CoHo’s The Yellow Wallpaper, which is part of Portland’s Fertile Ground festival of new works, are a magical contrast of earth tones, bright aqua blue, and light cadmium yellow. The stage is the whole theater; we are in the room with Charlotte. Long panels set all around the space play with images of waxen green tree leaves bowing in the wind, yellow starched wallpaper swirling with amateur impressions of French Rococo wildflowers, and eventually, snapshots of Charlotte’s thoughts.
Charlotte, as realized onstage by Grace Carter, is an earthy woman whose head lies in the cradle of philosophy. She’s autodidactic, plowing her way through books, turning her willful observations into life practices and writing. She’s her own work of art, in a constant motion of growth intellectually and socially. At a lecture, she meets John, a physician. He’s taken by their common sensibilities and falls in love with her. He says to her: “It is the will which separates us from other animal forms.”
They have a playful romance filled with a deep connection in their minds and bodies. As Charlotte weighs her future, she writes in her daily journal a list of pros and cons for marrying John, focusing on the loss of her identity and free will.
Chris Harder’s John has a steam trunk chest full of 19th century confidence in his practicality and the grand roads that empiricism is paving. After the birth of their son, he takes leave of his lecture circuit and makes a temporary rest home for the recovering Charlotte. His sister, Jenny (Christy Bigelow), is a peaches-and-cream young Midwestern woman full of optimism and trust. It beams from her rosy cheeks and golden curls. Bigelow articulates Jenny as the co-signer of Charles’s best of intentions.
John choses an abandoned nursery on the top floor of the house for Charlotte’s convalescence. The walls are covered with slightly torn light yellow wallpaper, with a long-gone children’s drawing marked here and there. There’s a large oak four-poster bed in the center of the room, which seems more like stakes used for impaling than the rustic work of a carpenter’s hand. Charlotte feels immediately uneasy in the room, and most uneasy about the walls. But John has made all the arrangements, down to her diet, a new schedule of medicines, and activities for each moment of the day. She’s become his patient, not his wife, and the friendship they once shared is fading to the past.
Locked into the etiquette of the time, she loses her voice, and her brave attempts at holding onto her freedom are shut down by calm, simple words. This is the silent terror that pervades Charlotte’s world: the silence of being one wall away from human conversation, a library, a choice. John believes that his hard work is on her behalf, but fails to realize that the results right before his eyes show the experiment is failing. By not letting go of his absolute belief in science, his ideology fills with a superstitious intolerance of the truth.
Charlotte’s fight for her sanity is not about losing her mind, but an actual death of the self. As her anxiety and paranoia mount, she looks to the walls of her room as the psychic Gordian’s knot she must sever. Her movement against the walls begins as a lyrical promenade that Carter reveals perceptively, with growing anxiety: when she dismantles Charlotte’s prison, she does so with a chimpanzee swagger, writhing in agony. The vibrating tension of the walls closing in and the shades of allegory that CoHo builds around Charlotte’s psychosis is a humane, but terrorizing, depiction of her descent and a glimpse into hell. In the end, she may have escaped. But who is she now, and where is that place?
CoHo’s The Yellow Wallpaper continues through February 6. Schedule and ticket information are here.