Annie Lesser, the creative heart behind the successful ABC Project, follows up on her stirring D(istillery) with E(levator), Students, and Friends: an ambitious series of productions exploring mental health from diverse and varied viewpoints. The stories gently intersect in a way that allows participants to feel they’ve completed a moving journey if they only are able to attend one show, but a full and richly detailed product emerges if the whole trio is completed. The shows are fully immersive; extraordinary actors seamlessly shift from Lesser’s poetic words to improvised dialogue depending on audience interaction. It is entirely up to a participant whether to engage or ignore, speak or listen, help or hurt; and as such, the entire production seethes with a heavy sense of audience responsibility that allows the deep message of the work to embed itself in the mind long after the curtain closes.
Students is the most open-ended of the three narratives, and as such it’s also far more repeatable than the other pieces. The magnetic Dasha Kittredge, as Professor Silva, invites students from her Psychology class for some extra credit. This field trip leads the group into an art therapy show at the nearby Maple Institute with the goal of interacting with the mentally ill to later diagnose and discuss their conditions. This work excels in the fact that Lesser expertly provides rich backstories and accurate behaviors for the varied disorders and entrusts a talented cast to convey them honestly and clearly.
Once inside the gallery, interactions between audience and patient are at once wondrously fun and harrowingly painful. Searching out what troubles the mind of each of these people provides an added layer of depth and discovery. Each patient offers a different avenue to explore: a man sees the eyes of an enemy in everyone you’ve arrived with, in you, perhaps in the mirror; another seems to perpetually forget himself; still another would throw himself in front of you to be remembered. You find yourself wondering if the institution is exhibiting the patient’s art, or the patients themselves. Kittredge, who plays one of her most grounded roles to date, captivates here and especially again later in Friends. Students also features a simultaneously comic and desperate turn from Terence Leclere, raw and agonizing emotions from Nikki Muller, charm and woeful aggression from Edward Salazar and Daniel Palma, and a subtle and quiet struggle behind the eyes of Orion Mikael Schwalm.
Friends is a more intimate piece, shrinking the participant numbers from twelve to four. A friend, played with the tense gravity of a long-coiled spring by Mikie Beatty has come to say goodbye to those who love him before he checks himself in to the Maple Institute for help with his fragile mind. One of his friends, the oldest and closest, is terrified of losing him and begs him to stay, to not abandon her as she has never abandoned him. She is played by ABC Project alum Keight Leighn with the force of a whirlwind; she roars through her audience, altering their mindset, shaking their foundations. As the truth of the situation dawns, what emerges is a truly unique perspective on mental illness from what manages to be simultaneously an outside point of view and an intimate personal connection with the patient. This piece is highlighted not only by the strong performance of Leighn, but by the crossover of Kittredge’s character from Students, sharing with participants a private moment so genuine that it almost feels taboo to witness.
Shrinking the audience again to it’s smallest (only two per show,) E(levator) itself arguably asks the most from its participants. You are new caretakers at the Maple Institute, and you encounter Lesser herself, who introduces you to a veteran staff member, played by Tad Shafer with the full weight of someone who’s seen too many broken people he is unable to fix. He seamlessly coaxes his “staff” through first day procedures, and prepares them to intake a new patient, the young man from Friends, played by Beatty. The real meat of this performance takes place in the elevator itself, as the audience gets first-hand experience with a terrified new patient and a worn-out caretaker. Responsibility is placed on the two participants as they must probe Beatty’s past, determine his state of mind, and ultimately if he will be a harm to himself. Tension hangs thick in the air; the unknown element of Beatty’s condition looms over the space. It is a powerful statement on empathy, both for those who suffer from mental health issues and for those who long to save them. Lesser’s words here provide a truly intimate moment to care—and to protect those who need it most.
Lesser, through all three of these shows, has crafted an interwoven yet deliberately disjointed narrative about what happens before, during, and after deciding to begin a journey towards improving mental health. You gain perspective on the process as a neutral observer, a proactive caretaker, and possibly even part of the problem. Sprinkled throughout the Maple Institute are the many powerful words of Annie Lesser, brought into being by her expertly chosen cast. Few directors could execute concurrent shows that bleed so deftly into each other; with impeccable timing between all three. E(levator,) Students, and Friends suffer only from the audience being left with a desire to do more, to talk more, to care more, to delve into the hidden stories of the mentally ill. Lesser’s mind has adeptly created genuine characters; the disorders featured, and mental health issues themselves, become deeply accessible due to the impressive cast. You may not be able to fix what is broken, but it will be far easier to see the cracks.