How does one learn to adjust with grace to life’s despair? Surely, love and understanding help. And by listening to others and offering empathy and concern, we empower ourselves. If one seeks refuge in friends, family, and love relationships, our inner storms are mitigated. If all else fails and suicide is not an option, one may seek intervention by psychologists or psychiatrists in mental health clinics. Will cures be achieved? As David Rabe suggests in his play Good for Otto, now in its New York premiere at The New Group, at the least, one receives the benefit of unburdening oneself. Indeed, whatever the ephemeral goodness may be, the acts of confession solidify our humanity and ground us in truth.
Good for Otto, directed by Scott Elliott with a stellar cast, notably F. Murray Abraham, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Rhea Perlman, and Mark Linn-Baker, focuses on the efforts of a counselor and administrator of Northwood Mental Health Clinic in a small town in Massachusetts. The play, inspired by the book Undoing Depression by Dr. Richard O’Connor, is ambitious and at times unwieldy. However, its subtle, matter-of-fact brilliance becomes endearing by the second act.
Rabe’s characterizations intrigue. Though on the surface the patients and counselors typify individuals with acute mental problems, they are specifically delineated and profoundly unique. Kudos goes to the acting ensemble who effect this individuality with rigor and graciousness. The patients’ mental ailments include hoarding, autism, depression and more. Though we know such individuals from our varied acquaintance, the details of these characters are revelatory and symbolic.
Jane (Kate Buddeke) seeks help for her excruciating headaches, which occur at the precise physical spot where her son Jimmy (Michael Rabe) shot himself in the head. Guardian Nora (a dramatic turn by Rhea Perlman) seeks an effective intervention for her schizophrenic ward Frannie (Rileigh McDonald). Both Perlman and McDonald render fine performances. Severe depressive Barnard (the astonishing, very present F. Murray Abraham) nurtures his acute sadness by staying in bed for weeks. Timothy (Mark Linn-Baker portrays the simple-complicated man with specificity) is an autism-spectrum patient with aggressive tendencies. And Alex (a poignant Maulik Pancholy) must deal with his homosexuality and fantasies of love when those he believes will respond never do.
Meanwhile, will secondary characters Mrs. Garland/Teresa (Laura Esterman) and Marcy (Nancy Giles) receive refuge from their own self-harm at the clinic? Or will they remain in the status quo of psychic intractability?
The play views these individuals through the lens of administrator/therapist Dr. Michaels (a refreshingly atypical Ed Harris in a superior turn). Fellow counselor Evangeline Ryder (Amy Madigan couldn’t be more natural and genuine) assists Dr. Michaels, particularly with patients who work better with a woman. Dr. Michaels reveals himself to be an empathetic, conscientious “to-die-for” counselor and hands-on clinic administrator. As insurance rep Denise (Lily Gladstone) confronts him about cost/loss ratios, we root for this doctor who is less concerned about paperwork and funding than about caring for his patients.
In a striking realization, we understand how such companies (the ironically named Colossal Care) profit off the backs of the destitute, the helpless, the wounded. Thus, we appreciate that unlike many in the medical profession, Dr. Michaels identifies roundly with his patients. And he shows temperance and concern in the face of the increasingly harsh realities of decreased funding for healthcare.
What makes Dr. Michaels so empathetic? Well, there is the thorny issue of his mother, represented as Mom (Charlotte Hope). Throughout the play he and we must reconcile her presence. Since his mom committed suicide years ago, one may interpret her as his alter ego questioning his motives and behavior. Or if you like, she may be his conscience haunting him. Either way, she is floating in his imagination and consciousness, though she is not there.
Rabe twits us with the concept of Dr. Michaels stepping fluidly in and out of his imagination and also peopling his consciousness with the clinic’s patients. Thus, an intriguing theme steps into the foreground. Do we not all view reality differently through our own heightened consciousnesses? And is this not why we so appreciate those who seem to be “speaking our own language and thoughts”? Perhaps! In addition to Dr. Michaels’ mom, another ghost appears (Jimmy, played by Michael Rabe). When Jimmy explains his own suicide to Dr. Michaels (in the therapist’s remembrance), he deepens our understanding of Dr. Michaels’ attitude about his mom’s suicide. He can never really be over it.
Each time Dr. Michael’s mother materializes (a fine performance by Charlotte Hope), her presence stirs. She questions and challenges him. And when Dr. Michaels responds, with pointed commentary she rejects her son’s answers. One might easily dismiss this linchpin character as magical realism or absurdist. The character remains interpretative. But not only does she fuel Dr. Michaels’ days, she provokes him to consider his own psyche. She challenges his guilty reactions, his helpless-savior emotions, his sadness about her suicide. And all this he views in the context of the clinic’s patients and especially his intervention with Frannie.
Only the great therapists constantly review their own psyches and check their relationship filters. Surely, Dr. Michaels has the makings of a great therapist – except, perhaps, in his emotional attachment to Frannie. In this his mother periodically floats into his consciousness to remind him of his attachment to the young girl. It is an attachment which gets in the way of helping Frannie, but perhaps Frannie cannot be helped. Thus, in the interplay between Dr. Michaels, his mother, and Frannie, we come to understand the painful trial of who he is and what he attempts. How does one keep hope when battering again and again into a concrete wall that is someone else’s storm-filled, painful consciousness and fading sense of reality?
Notably, Rabe outlines each character’s distinctive battleground, where counselors Michaels and Ryder defend and encourage them against their tendencies to self-harm. Memorable scenes include Barnard’s lively and productive sessions with Ryder. Of course, we become thrown by the chaos of Frannie’s inability to sustain her visits to her own mother and Dr. Michaels’ yearnings to take her into a foster care of his own making. And we cringe as he attempts to resolve funding problems with Denise.
But then there is the sweetness and simplicity of Timothy and his concern for his hamster Otto who faces dire surgery. And if we human beings cannot finally measure our own lives beyond cups of coffee and hauntings in our consciousness of unreconciled relationships of childhood, there is satisfaction in the recovery of other sentient beings. If Otto makes it through his surgery, will that mean there is hope for us after all?
Elliott’s fine production challenges us to stretch our understanding of our own coping skills and reconcile our own slipping away from realities that may be too painful to see. This production may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But I enjoyed how Elliott and the actors approached the characterizations and the idea of reality as a fluid, unsteady state. F. Murray Abraham especially rocked it. Madigan and Harris and the cast danced through the difficulties of suspended consciousness and fragments of songs (neatly accompanied by Kenny Mellman as Jerome, the pianist and hoarder), sung with cheeky irony and whimsy. Indeed, they and Elliott embrace the expansiveness of consciousness as they merge their imaginations with ours. Touché.
Good for Otto runs at The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center with one intermission. It has been extended until 15 April.