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Thursday, April 10, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater Review

Depressed writer's room is her prison in dark 'Yellow'

Seattle Times theater critic

Theater review


"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, adapted by Heather Newman. Thursday-Saturday through April 26 at Theater Schmeater, 1500 Summit Ave., Seattle. $12-$15. 206-325-6500.

Long before shrinks had a real clue what to do about clinical depression (especially post-partum depression), those suffering from the malady were subjected to speculative, often counterproductive treatments.

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's autobiographical short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," a distinguished woman writer falls into a deep depression after giving birth, and is put on a rigorous rest cure. Variations on this program of force-feeding, confinement, restricted activity and enforced sleep were endured by Virginia Woolf, Zelda Fitzgerald and other afflicted women in the late 1800s and early 20th century — sometimes with disastrous results.

Gilman's chilling tale of a woman driven crazy by a regime of sensory deprivation and "voluntary" incarceration caused a stir when published in 1899, and it has had a long afterlife. It's already been dramatized on stage, radio and TV, but the new theatrical adaptation by Heather Newman is well worth a look.

Eerie, well-acted and affecting, Newman's premiere staging of her script at plucky Theater Schmeater rather awkwardly preserves some of the internal musings of the first-person narrative, and it ends too abruptly. But it also fills in Gilman's story dramatically in persuasive, telling ways.

The set on display is the hideous, yellow-wallpapered room in a rented country house where Charlotte (played with remarkable acuity by Mary Jane Gibson) is sequestered by her well-meaning husband, John (intently enacted by Stephen Loch) and imperious doctor (ineffectively portrayed by James Catechi).

This room becomes Charlotte's prison, and at night, a tormenting chamber of hallucination and fear. We gradually witness how a human deprived of sensory stimulation, fellowship and creative endeavor (Charlotte isn't allowed to write, but she scribbles down some thoughts in secret) becomes, essentially, a torture victim.

Gilman, who recovered from a similar debacle and was a leader in the American women's suffrage movement, portrays the people in Charlotte's reduced world in broad strokes. But Newman's version expands Charlotte's immediate relationships, and makes them more complex.

We witness Charlotte's warm bond with her servant and secret ally Mary (Lisa Viertel), her tense interplay with a jealous sister-in-law Jennie (Annie Lareau) and shifting dynamic with John. In Loch's fervent enactment, John is a manipulative but also genuinely concerned spouse — and, in an added twist, he's drawn into a compromising business relationship with Charlotte's misogynist doctor.

Portrayed with equal parts primness and fluster by Lareau, Jennie is also no ogre but a woman forced into another restrictive role, of caretaker-spinster.

Though the pacing drags at times, and some overdrawn shadow-play gets hokey, the show also succeeds in depicting how a splendid, agile mind can become unraveled.

The set, spooky lighting, clever use of sound and filmy yellow curtains help create a palpable sense of Charlotte's mounting paranoia and slippage into a world of phantoms and terrors.

But nothing here is as effective as Gibson's work. This emotionally kinetic actress has a pale, arresting face and saucer eyes that can alternately appear plain or beautiful, aglow or aghast, enraptured or haunted.

In Gibson's consistently involving portrayal, Charlotte's intelligence glows as brightly as her oppression weighs on her heavily. It is a fine piece of acting in a tiny theater — in a play that makes you very grateful for the invention of Prozac.

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