Returning from Madness Shows Promise, Creepiness

Returning from Madness is a melodrama centered on the effect that a mental condition like schizophrenia can have on a family and a lifetime. While rough around the edges, this new play from Chicago playwright, Laurie Jones shows fantastic potential and is peppered with moments of fear and strong performances. The play has 7 more performances at the time of this review and analysis (Thur. – Sat., March 10 – 19 at 8 PM, Industry Day, Sun., March 13 at 3 PM) which will be held at the Athaneum Theatre at 2936 North Southport Ave. in Chicago. I recommend that you check it out as it has great value for both writing and drama enthusiasts. Buy tickets here!

As with most of my articles about plays or sketch comedy shows, this will be part analysis and part review, since you might as well learn something while you’re on a site about writing, while getting my semi-expert opinion :).

The play is about two sisters, one of which (Alice, played by Kimberly Van Ness) has been away at school while her sibling (Grace, played by Elizabeth Finley) has been descending into the madness of schizophrenia that their mother had previously endured. They had both lived with their guardian, their Aunt Claire who was given about two years to live after a life-threatening cancer diagnosis shortly before Alice left for school. Claire has died and now Alice must return to face her sister. Unable to recognize the sister she sees on the surface, she follows Grace into her mind of madness, hoping to find the loving, strong-willed, artist she had previously known.

The world of the madness is both the play’s strongest suit and its Achilles heel. There are brilliant moments in this realm such as when a demon with a glowing, fluorescent face morphs into the compassionate Pastor Rich (played by Timothy Lane), demonstrating that Alice’s trip to part-time insanity is bleeding into her life as she prepares for the funeral. Van Ness handles these transitions well, as her Alice trudges through these two realities with perpetual dread that she will endure the same fate as her sister and their mother before them.

The problematic part of the world is that Alice simply isn’t given enough to do while within the world aside from shouting phrases like “I need to find my sister!” and “Have you seen, Grace!” As a nerdy role-playing game enthusiast, I almost wish there had been some sort of quest laid out for her, instead of all the demons she encountered telling her that her sister was more or less gone for good.

These demons of the mind did have some fantastic moments though, and lines like “Have you ever been brave, Alice?” played well, with the audience enjoying the palpable creepiness. Another insanity to real world transition that I especially like was with Rebecca Jones, the executor of Aunt Claire’s will, played by Natalie DiCristofano. DiCristofano’s dual characters had a liveliness and likeability in both worlds and you felt like the actress truly understood how to keep either character from becoming a broad caricature.

Alice has friends in the real world, including their live-in nurse and friend Whitney, played with a lot of heart and optimism by Erin Lovelace. Lovelace’s Whitney acted as the calm within the storm for both the audience and within the play, taking us out of the madness with drama-pausing jokes and caring for both Grace and Alice in equal measure. With self-deprecation and a knowing positivity, Whitney is the most fully-rounded character and Lovelace is a joy to watch in her portrayal whenever she’s on stage.

Evan, portrayed by Aaron Weiner, Grace’s boyfriend when the tempest of her madness hit, seems to be as supportive as possible, though he is in his own mental prison, kissing Alice by mistake due to his loneliness and lack of affection from Grace. Dr. Harris, played strongly and honestly by Paul Vonasek, treated Alice’s entire family and wants to help Alice through the process of her Aunt’s death. Alice blames Dr. Harris in part for her sister and mother and has difficulty trusting him.

So, why should you see this play? I think that it has a great deal of promise to be something special, unsettling and impactful and you’ll see that popping up throughout the production. As potential writers, you’ll also see some areas that can be refined as a play is produced multiple times over its lifetime.

The world of the madness is fantastic due to the enjoyable performances of the mental demons, the disquieting set designed by John Mark Sawyer, the twisted funhouse of sound provided by designer David Brown and the writing and performance behind Grace. The real world flashbacks (and the final scenes as well) are written quite naturally and I enjoyed the direction (direction is best when you can’t detect it at all, which was the case in these scenes :)).

Alice’s journey is the issue for me, which is certainly fixable and can be tightened up in future productions of Returning from Madness. I understand that she’s looking for her sister in the world of madness. I also understand that she was never the strong one of the two (Grace was more the type A in the relationship before her disease) which leaves Alice scared as hell in the world of mental instability. I just wasn’t sold on the point of her journey, which as I said before, could have used a little more direction than multiple demons berating her.

The end of her journey though, was reached during a fantastic scene between Van Ness and Lovelace, which really brings the play to a fine conclusion. Well written and well acted. Good times.

Before I wrap up this LONG review, I do want to give some props to Elizabeth Finley as Grace. This is not a simple part by any means and she hit all the right notes. A particularly disturbing scene when a make-out session with Evan turns into a knife standoff between the voices in her head and the voice of reason (in the form of Whitney) is well played by all involved.

I recommend that you see this play and that you also see it again years down the line when it fully matures into the intense, disconcerting drama that it has the potential to be.

As I said earlier, Returning from Madness put on by the Wishbone Theatre Collective has 7 more performances, Thur. – Sat., March 10 – 19 at 8 PM, with Industry Day on Sun., March 13 at 3 PM. The show is held at the Athaneum Theatre at 2936 North Southport Ave. in Chicago. Support live theatre!

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