InnerMission’s Great ‘Melancholy Play’ Unearths a Vital Emotional Truth

Joan (Vanessa Dinning, left) presents more than one puzzle for Tilly (Hannah Logan) to decipher. Photos 1 and 2 by Jim Carmody.

Tilly is probably one of those people who own only one outfit, tennies and underwear and all — such is the extent to which her perpetual melancholy has imprisoned her. Sure, her condition has its payoff; she’s colossally loved by everybody she meets, and her quirky isolation ensures that their affection will endure.

The thing is that she’s about to change clothes. As she finally discovers happiness, those around her find her less appealing, at which point they assume their own depressive postures. Amid Tilly’s sadness, they’d felt better about themselves; now that her doldrums are off the table, the others have brought a big fat reality check to bear.

One of them even turns into a piece of food.

It all comes out in the wash in Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play, InnerMission Productions’ romp through the human condition and the emotions that leverage it. Ennui, Ruhl says, is a legitimate state of being she fears is losing authenticity in the public mind; she’s shrewdly used middle farce to challenge the cultural assumptions that got the imbalance to this point. Director Carla Nell has framed the result perfectly well, her cast following suit.

If you take a lot of stream of consciousness with your farce, then Ruhl is your playwright. If you prefer sovereignty over style, then this is your show.

Tilly, such as she is, is a mid-thirtysomething from Illinois and works at a bank; her hidebound boyfriend Frank is a tailor, while her conflicted therapist Lorenzo is probably the sickest (certainly the most emotional) of the bunch. Hairdresser Frances and nurse Joan, her lover, round out the circle of friends, with the latter two doting over the long-term prospect of Tilly’s company.

Tilly’s state of woe is an aphrodisiac to the others, whose lives are otherwise devoid of the ties that bind.

Then, the unthinkable.

Lorenzo (Scott Striegel) is out of his mind over Tilly, who’s anything but out of hers.

Somehow, a game of duck-duck-goose catapults Tilly into a sea of personal fulfillment, her happiness threatening to blow the lid off her relationships (plus it’s her birthday). Frances takes the brunt of Tilly’s epiphany, her own melancholy turning her into an almond. Things look bleak — and now, it’s up to Tilly to enlist the others’ help in getting Frances back.

There’s method in Ruhl’s mad use of the almond as a metaphor. “Amygdala,” from the Greek amygdale, translates to the English “almond” and describes a brain structure concerned with memory registration and the processing of emotion (the brain actually has two of ’em). Small wonder, then, that Tilly’s opening line to Frank — “Why are you like an almond?” — hangs over this show like the arbiter it is. Smaller wonder still that poor Frances is consigned to life as the eminently edible kernel (save some last-minute heroics).

Ruhl exploits the absurdity of it all through masterful disproportion. Mundane discussions about Frank’s banking habits and Frances’ past become fodder for talks on feeling and interconnection; the same is true as the show’s minutiae become more microcosmic yet. Frances’ obsession with triangular sandwiches. A reference to “sweaty cows.” The fight between Frank and Lorenzo over a vial of Tilly’s tears. A letter warning melancholy people to stay in their homes lest they turn into almonds. Frances’ loss of her sense of smell. The fact that Frank can’t paint. Ideas big and small merge in excellent timing, even as Ruhl, and actor Hannah Logan after her, exploit one of the show’s most important tenets:

Tilly isn’t clinically depressed by any means, any more than she’s a threat to her own life or to anybody else’s. Accordingly, Logan flawlessly places her in a state of suspended animation, in a part that Ruhl must have written for her in another life. Patrick Mayuyu’s Frank is only at his best if he’s flirting with everybody else’s misery; his physicality following Tilly’s metamorphosis is spot-on. Scott Striegel’s Lorenzo is the loosest cannon of all, and the character’s Italianate accent punctuates the prospect that that cannon could blow any minute.

Cristyn Chandler has an unaffected Frances going on, as does Vanessa Dinning as Joan. In the logistical sense, however, the characters are underused as Ruhl miscalculates Tilly’s effect on them. Nothing fatal, just a little out of cadence.

Funny — playwright Sarah Ruhl doesn’t look anything like a psychiatrist.

Ron Logan’s set design incorporates a series of window frames behind which the characters observe one another; their white color scheme is essential to the tempo behind the design. Nell’s sound and Kym Pappas’ costumes complement one another’s statements, and Robert Malave’s lights invite the many faces that compose Dinning’s music direction. The evening’s honors go to Nell herself amid a remarkably well-managed merger of chaos and dominion.

This culture has any number of “remedies” for melancholy, which Ruhl chooses to recognize as an emotional state that runs as deep as any other. It defies clinical definition (which is likely why Ruhl waxes so philosophical on it) — even so, its aftereffects are profound and, once sentimentalized, can powerfully skew the poles at either end of one’s emotional spectrum. That is its danger and, by extension, the play’s success.

This review is based on the matinee performance of Nov. 11. Melancholy Play runs through Nov. 24 at Diversionary Black Box Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $15-$20.; 619-324-8970.

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