By Dorothy Dittrich. Directed by Bill Devine. A Sea Theatre production. At Studio 16 until August 26
Who knew a breakdown could be so entertaining? In The Dissociates, playwright Dorothy Dittrich shows us a woman who has fallen apart””and all the parts. Alex is a lesbian in midlife who is recovering from a failed suicide attempt. As she works in her garden, we meet her diverse inner selves, including Roz, a cynical, tough-talking broad; Mary, a touchy-feely-weepy type; and a Buddhist nun, whose gnomic bits of advice on meditation are always supremely well timed.
It's a premise that injects considerable theatricality into the story of a small, essentially internal step. Although these shards of her personality can talk to each other””and they often argue””none of them is able to get through to Alex, who has been exhorted by a compassionate doctor to “re-member” her dismembered self. The stakes are high for everyone: if Alex kills herself, they all die.
If this sounds earnest or melodramatic, it's not, because Dittrich spikes the text with bone-dry humour and plenty of wry observations about lesbian culture. “If I had a buck for every party I went to that Ferron was supposed to show up at,” Alex recalls of her younger, more gregarious days. And, lighting up her first cigarette in years, she says, “Compared to slashing your wrists, this is like having a salad.”
Wendy Noel plays Alex with the understated calm that often follows a crisis, but when Alex finally gives in to her grief, it is so palpable, and Noel is so vulnerable, that the moment is electrifying. She's just one of the standouts in a very strong cast. Jenn Griffin is terrific as Roz, firing off foul-mouthed judgments of the people Alex has known. (She accuses one of them of “clawing your way to the middle” .) Eileen Barrett brings a fiery intentness to Irene, the relentlessly political dyke who can never seem to relax: she even brings Handi Wipes to the local lesbian bar. And Alex McMorran gets to play both sensitive (as Alex's doctor) and swine (as her beer-swilling inner man).
Director Bill Devine keeps the pace crisp, and Michael Schaldemose's expressive lighting design tidily signals the transitions between memory and the present. Gary and Lynda Chu's set, with its neglected garden and oversize trellises, echoes the script's suggestion that connection can be both healing and overwhelming.