The emotional weight in Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide (winner of the 2018 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize) is almost unbearable: three generations of women unable to escape a legacy of suicide encoded in them by both nature and nurture: by genetics and the knowledge of their own familial history. And yet in director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s exceptional production, the brutality of the underlying story, which begins in the wake of a failed suicide attempt and proceeds inexorably toward a successful one, is counterposed with the exquisite intricacy of the play’s construction, and tender attention to the rare moments in which the characters manage to find peace or joy, or even simply the ability to speak plainly their emotional truths. Birch uses overlapping, simultaneous scenes, with thematic strands tossed back and forth among the three storylines so that the whole feels like a living tapestry, where you can feel the threads as they wind from character to character, generation to generation. The fluidity and delicacy with which Blain-Cruz handles the interplay between these scenes would be worth the ticket price even if the play itself were not as strong, albeit sometimes difficult to watch, as it is.
Blain-Cruz’s work in this realm is strongly complemented by all the production elements: Jiyoun Chang’s lighting design, which uses subtle color shades to differentiate the three scenes/time periods onstage at once; Hannah Wasileski’s projections, which transform the door-filled walls of Mariana Sanchez’s set with such subtlety for most of the piece that it’s a shock when they come to full flower at the end; Kaye Voyce’s costumes, which lightly frame the timeline for each story; and Rucyl Frison’s sound design, with its bursts of music that punctuate the internal arcs.
As she showed with her recent revival of Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends, Blain-Cruz has a gift for making meaning out of moving people in space; in Fefu, that was used to create simultaneity, with four scenes that took place at the same time but for different quadrants of the audience. Here, it’s used to create resonance between scenes that occur a generation apart in calendar time but simultaneously on a stage divided into three playing areas, with focus constantly shifting among them, and attention subtly directed: by positioning upstage versus downstage, by lighting shifts, by the passing back and forth of patterns of language. Birch uses repeated words as punctuation–simple words, like “Sorry,” “normal,” “good,” that build a scaffold that links Carol (Carla Gugino), her daughter, Anna (Celeste Arias), and Anna’s daughter, Bonnie (Gabby Beans), even as the always-already-present suicide theme rips them apart.
The play doesn’t specify time or place, but the costumes and the character roles suggest that Carol’s story, of an impeccably dressed but miserable housewife, for whom a job might be a curiosity, not a career, takes place in the late fifties/early sixties–the heyday of ECT. Anna’s descent into addiction and emergence to live on a commune suggest the late seventies, and Bonnie, the intense emergency room physician, seems a figure of the present.
The story begins in the wake of Carol’s suicide attempt—intensely focused and seriously intended, but failed. Gugino makes Carol so unwavering and so clear-minded in her desire for self-annihilation, over almost twenty years, that it’s almost more heartbreaking to see her try to rise above it, to stay out of the depths for the sake of her daughter, Anna, than to understand her final failure.
Anna’s trajectory is more complex. On some level, she’s always known that her mother is slipping away gradually (Ava Briglia, who plays both Anna and her cousin Daisy as children, has a gravitas that makes this understanding clear), but the actual event, when she’s a teenager still triggers a deeper spiral that leads to a serious, almost-fatal heroin addiction. Birch and Blain-Cruz pull no punches in depicting Anna’s drug use, either in what we see (Anna shooting up in the bathroom) or what we hear (her grim description, once she’s broken the grip of heroin, of her state at her worst). Celeste Arias gives Anna a jagged, irrepressible energy that’s magnetic even when she’s at her most dangerous. Anna has a mercurial quality that feels more bipolar than her mother’s more unrelenting depression; her highs are magnetically high and her passion infectious, as she pulls herself up from rock bottom, marries Jamie (Julian Elijah Martinez), a documentary filmmaker, and gets pregnant with the highest hopes. But that light is doused by postpartum depression after she gives birth to Bonnie, and even ECT (depicted with as much harsh realism as Anna’s addiction) can’t rewire the circuits.
And Bonnie, despite a seeming ability to engage with and function in the world and in her career, is no more able to escape her legacy. She can’t even exist as an emotionally whole woman while the possibility of passing this down remains. Beans has the hardest role to play, here—where Carol is calculating and meticulous in her despair and Anna a barely contained jumble of emotions, Bonnie is so opaque that she can seem emotionally flat–until you realize that she’s intentionally absenting herself, clamping down on her emotions to prevent them from destroying her. We see her romantic relationships founder, and her hovering around the edges of social interaction. She seems to be holding it together until she isn’t.
The actors who play Carol and Anna’s husbands and Bonnie’s partners–Richard Topol, Martinez, Jo Mei, and Miriam Silverman (Mei and Silverman play many other characters as well, as do the other two members of the ensemble)–have a challenging task, acting as the even keels against which the women’s tempests founder. The characters, too, though, feel like sketches compared to the central trio: John (Topol), Carol’s milquetoast husband who can’t seem to get past his sister’s view of what domestic harmony and normalcy should look like; Jamie (Martinez), Anna’s Bohemian husband who doesn’t really seem to grasp her at her worst; Jo (Mei), Bonnie’s fisherwoman lover who can’t see the difference between her own social awkwardness and Bonnie’s emotional paralysis; even Esther (Silverman), a one-night stand for Bonnie who has no idea what to make of her. Each has a scene or two to shine, but you don’t think about them when they’re not there. (They can tend to run in with the slew of doctors, nurses, neighbors, and the like played by Silverman, Mei, Vince Nappo, and Jason Babinsky. Silverman stands out in her ability to give each of these little cameos distinct character.)
As with language, visual elements recur and link from scene to scene: balloons, a bandaged wrist, the constant presence of doctors’ and nurses’ white coats. One of the only constants is a deep claw-footed bathtub, omnipresent upstage just off of center. We know it’s where Carol made her failed suicide attempt, and it hovers over the play like Chekhov’s gun, sure to go off. On her wedding day, Anna lays her dress gently over the edge of the tub, and even then, it bears menace. We want to believe these characters can escape their legacy, and yet this symbol of despair huddles always in the corner. There is a breath of hope, in the end, that Bonnie can break free–but mostly the only comfort comes from the beauty with which Birch and Blain-Cruz have limned this portrait of despair.