My friend Nan and I went to see Book-It Theatre’s “She’s Come Undone”, based on the novel by Wally Lamb. My book group had read it several years ago and I was really eager to see how it would be presented. It had been quite awhile since I read it and I didn’t really remember a lot of the details except that it was about a girl with mental health problems, resulting in obesity and a lack of trust in relationships.
Well, it is about those things, but much more, too: abandonment, secrets, rejection, humiliation, sexual assault and rape, and then more secrets piled on. Delores (Jocelyn Maher) is in grade school when the play opens. She is a very happy child with good friends in her new neighborhood and new school, and vacations with her mom (Betsy Schwartz) and her dad (Cobey Mandarino). She hears her parents fighting and is shocked to hear her mother say that her dad prospered in his sales job because he’s “cozy” with the old woman owner.
Neither parent ever discusses with her that they are getting a divorce – the beginning of the secrets, abandonment and rejection. Dad moves to New Jersey with a new girlfriend. Her mother Bernice can’t cope with the betrayal and rejection, and ends up in a state institution. Delores goes to live with her very stoic, unexpressive, seemingly unfeeling, and very pious Catholic grandmother (Julie Jamieson); she’s put into a parochial school where she’s bullied, humiliated and assaulted. She’s in hell every day. Her only bright moments come from visiting Roberta (Susanna Burney) across the street, the tattoo parlor owner whom grandma judges a tramp. To ease her sullenness and get her to come out of her room, Grandma constantly buys treats for Delores. Delores only gets fat and angry.
When Bernice is released, she comes to live with her mother and Delores. The gloom is lifted a bit when a young couple moves into the upstairs apartment. All three downstairs women are charmed by the couple, especially Jack, a local radio station DJ. He drives a sports car and makes particular friends with lonely, sad, 13-year old Delores. Jack’s wife Jeannette gets pregnant and he panics and starts swearing Delores to keep secrets as he slides into menace. Meanwhile he drives her to and from school. One afternoon he takes her for a “ride” way out in the country and rapes the child. Jack tells her she deserves it, she led him on with her provocative ways - another major betrayal with long-lasting psychological and physical pain.
Delores’ high school counselor, Mr. Pucci (John Bianchi), encourages her to go to college, saying that it’s a new chance for a new live, although her inclination is to just hibernate. But between nagging from her mother and grandma, and encouragement from Mr. Pucci, she goes to college. A snotty roommate is horrified at her appearance, ridicules her behind her back and humiliates her to her face until Delores moves out of the dorm. Things just get worse for her until she is institutionalized.
When she tells her psychologist Dr. Shaw (David Anthony Lewis) that she doesn’t need him anymore and is released, she heads for Cape Cod, where she heard that whales are beaching themselves. When she wades into the ocean to, first, see the whale up close and, second, to drown herself, she realizes that she does want to live.
More secrets and emotions suppressed and create more problems for the vulnerable young woman.
The very troubled Delores was beautifully rendered by Jocelyn Maher. Maher gives a subtle and convincing depiction of the girl’s development from rejected child to rejected woman, with, in between, a marriage based on lies and secrets. Finally in a creative writing class, she releases all her feelings and secrets in her writing. She has no secrets left, but develops a willingness to accept love from a remarkably patient man, Thayer (Lewis again).
I thought all the actors were admirable, from Delores’ family, her counselor, psychologist, abusive husband Dante (Andrew Nelson), Jack the caddish child molester, Kippy, the snotty roommate (Allie Pratt), Dottie (Rachel Fitzgerald) the lesbian opportunist, to Mr. Pucci, her beloved counselor, cheerleader and always reliable, long-time friend.
The content of Lamb’s novel and the play were grim, to say the least, and emotionally exhausting for the audience members. Anyone with any family, friends or co-workers with mental health challenges will grieve for Delores as she is continuously rejected and celebrate in her acceptance of herself and of love.
The scenic design by Andrea Bryn Bush ias the characteristicly clever, spare, chameleon-like, great Book-It set. Just a two-leveled platform and another wooden structure, a bench in a square and open in the middle, made plenty of spaces to hold the action. One element was particularly eloquent, the empty and worn picture frames hanging individually from the ceiling, suggesting a hallway of family photos and empty emotions and Bernice’s art therapy painting, a high-heeled leg floating in a blue sky.
Kelly Kitchens adapted Lamb’s novel and served as the director as well. She brought each actor to an understated peak that horrified and satisfied the audience. Well done, Ms Kitchens.
Chelsea Cook’s costume design was equally simple and showed Delores at all stages in her life, Bernice repressed before being institutionalized and liberated at release, Grandma, consistently very plain, ordered and stoic, Mr. Pucci as a discrete, loving man, and Thayer, who considered himself an outcast until he met Delores. Except for Delores, Grandma and Mr. Pucci, the other actors had to speed-change their costumes. There was nothing showy but every clothing item expressed the character’s inner life.
“She’s Come Undone” runs until October 13, 2013 and I recommend seeing/experiencing the production. For information and tickets, call 206-216-0833 or go online at www.book-it.org.