Medicine is a bitter pill, a production enchanted by its own strangeness. Enda Walsh’s brusque and often alienating play, now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse after debuting at the Edinburgh International Festival, embraces a “more is more” maximalism that belies its having little to say about mental illness.
The play opens in promisingly disorienting fashion. There’s no pre-show music, which lends a hushed air to the proceedings. John (Domhnall Gleeson), a middle-aged man in distress, enters a recreation hall littered with a sagging “Congratulations” sign and scattered confetti, which he frantically begins to clean up. Without dialogue or context, we’re placed into detective mode: who are we viewing, why is he so harried, what is about to happen?
Things only get stranger from there: a tiny human enters in an Einstein-esque wig, a bushy mustache, and comically large eyebrows. They remove their bizarre costume to reveal Mary 1 (Aoife Duffin), a female-presenting performer. Weirder still—a woman behind a glass window (Claire Barrett) is dressed in a lobster costume and batting a ball with a tennis racket.
There’s a challenge laid out in these opening moments: we’re in John’s discombobulated world, and it’ll be on us, the audience, to catch up. But the underlying plot of Medicine is slippery and slim, leaving little to hold on to.
It turns out that Mary 1 and Mary 2 (the woman in the lobster costume) are hired actors, here (along with a silent jazz drummer played by Seán Carpio) to participate in a form of art therapy for John, who seems to be institutionalized. John narrates scenes from his life that the Marys reenact, playing his mother and father at various ages. The play alternates between these reenactments, featuring Carpio’s live jazz drumming, and discussions between the Marys about the nature of their work.
Walsh is an acclaimed Irish playwright, best known stateside for his Tony-winning adaptation of the movie musical Once. He has a longstanding relationship with St. Ann’s Warehouse and for Medicine pulls double duty as playwright and director. In both roles here, he misses the mark.
As a director, Walsh does his cast no favors. His chameleonic actors are fully committed and grounded in their roles. Their performances are fine. But at every turn, they make conventional, expected choices. There’s a brassy diva (Barrett), a waifish sidekick (Duffin), and a teary, angry schizophrenic struggling to hold it all together (Gleeson). These actors gamely go through the wringer as John relives traumatic memories from his childhood. But only Duffin’s prickly second fiddle manages to cut enough against type to really surprise.
There’s more compelling work from the design team. Set designer Jamie Vartan’s recreation hall is convincingly dingy and generic, a storytelling playground that accumulates detritus as the night goes on. (It’s fun to stare at a discarded banana peel littered at the lip of the stage midway through the show.) Composer Teho Teardo’s score is grand and enigmatic, and lighting designer Adam Silverman’s dynamic angled lights cast a dramatic tint to John’s stories.
Walsh’s work as a playwright, too, leaves much to be desired here. Medicine does its best impersonation of Shutter Island, with an added dash of 1984—starting as off-kilter fun before transforming into a form of theatrical torture, as the actors use increasing amounts of force to get John to accept the necessity of his institutionalization.
Walsh stages bewitching scene transitions, lip synced to songs like “September,” that do a better job of establishing John’s uncertain reality than the dialogue we hear. Given that much of what we see is framed through John’s unreliable subjectivity, there are all sorts of questions about how much of what we see is “real”—questions the production has little interest in answering. Instead, Walsh repeatedly dials up the theatrical bedlam (a wind machine is deployed repeatedly with little apparent rhyme or reason). Walsh seems more interested in the Marys’ processes as actors than clarifying John’s circumstances, devoting extensive stage time to actor warmups and discussions about day jobs. In a play that’s nominally filtered through John’s eyes, that’s a problem—it’s hard to care about John as a protagonist when he’s sidelined for vast portions of the evening so that we can hear about Mary 2 (who may not even exist!) performing at a children’s party. This all leaves the play feeling rather blurry, a harsh cacophony of memories with a hazily defined sense of place and time. And if all Medicine has to say about living with severe mental illness is that it’s disorienting, unpleasant, upsetting, and that we should have compassion and love for people who suffer from it, I’m unsure if this production has much to add to the conversation.
Without a life raft to hold on to, I found myself checking out by the end. I didn’t want to take my medicine.