By Patrick O’Brien
The ancients and medievals believed that the human body was filled with four substances – humors – that, in balance, meant a healthy body and mind. Inversely, any imbalance or surplus could only lead to trouble. In Melancholy Play, a surplus of melancholy leads to a surplus of sanguinity leads to people turning into almonds.
Fortunately for playwright Sarah Ruhl – and the audience – the journey from page to stage has been far less nutty. Originally presented at the Piven Theatre Workshop in 2002 as a straight play, Ruhl revisited the piece in a Brooklyn workshop in 2012 and gave rising composer/lyricist Todd Almond (that’s kismet) free rein to weave music throughout the script and lyricize the dialogue. This version, Melancholy Play–A Chamber Musical, is what Polly Noonan (the lead in the 2002 production) brings to charming life for its Midwestern premiere, though whether the work itself is properly balanced is perhaps up to the individual to decide.
Though billed as a “lighthearted farce,” the musical has more in common with rhapsodic works like Passion or A Minister’s Wife, where dialogue gives way to song and back. A fitting model for this work: Tilly (Stephanie Stockstill) suffers from (lives with? embraces?) long bouts of melancholy that wend through her days, descending without warning and nearly no provocation beyond a little afternoon rain. Her employers at the bank push her into therapy, hoping it will cure her; but no one would expect that her therapist Lorenzo (Ryan Lanning) would fall madly in love with her.
Indeed, everyone Tilly meets falls madly in love with her, immensely drawn to her nonspecific sadness: her tailor Frank (Chris Ballou); her hairdresser Frances (Lauren Paris); and even Frances’s own girlfriend, nurse Joan (Emily Grayson). So when Tilly becomes undeniably happy one day, everyone around her is set adrift, unmoored by the loss of the thing that attracted them to her. Soul-searching, a vial of tears, and almonds ensue.
On paper, the plot and characters may seem a tad thin and archetypical; indeed, their dimensions seem appropriate for the fable that the tale seems to be. But Ruhl’s poetically hyper-specific wording, shot through with Almond’s delicately minimalist beauty, color the proceedings in an electric blue wash, turning such non-everyday phrases like “I wish I lived in a time when people went to sea for years” or “I feel like Europe before the war” into something deeply human. (Special props to pianist Kevin Reeks and his gently nimble fingers.)
Noonan keeps that wash swirling and uncluttered. Everything needed is in just-right amounts, from the lack of the ensemble (properly isolating our characters and squaring our focus on them) to the dollhouse manse-like set by Jacob Waston and the crisp luminescence (blue, obviously, mostly) of Rachel Levy’s lights. And typish as the characters may be, the actors give them rich light color.
Stockstill, as the linchpin of the show, has the wildest emotional journey, from intense melancholy to intense happiness to a contentedness somewhere in between, and is immensely likeable and believable throughout. She is also in possession of a gorgeous soprano that easily flits between the bubbly and the lovely languorous aspects of the score. Ballou plays the Frank the straight man well, but his descent into the oddness surrounding him is convincing, too. Lanning as Lorenzo, a fish out of water (from “a non-specific European country”) with wacky whiskers, lands the laughs and the heart. Paris as Frances does well falling surprisingly into and out of love with Tilly, but Grayson as her girlfriend Joan is where the heart of that relationship rests, blessed with perhaps the most heartbreaking arietta in the show. Sung to an almond.
About those almonds: If it weren’t for a program note explaining the role of the almond-shaped amygdala on human behavior, the references to the nuts would seem a little tenuous, though they are expounded upon somewhat in the text. (“Feeling dry as an almond,” for instance.) And the closing moments – the turning-into-an-almond business – may, for some, stand out in a disconnecting way, turning a sweet fable into something absurd.
But perhaps such turns are merely reflective of life itself, life that could use such variation. At the start, Ballou delivers an introduction about how melancholy is “a disappearing emotion,” one he (and Ruhl and Almond) seek to build “a defense of.” In a busy culture, our emotional states need precise reasons for being so. Hence, Tilly’s non-specific sadness vexes her bosses and her therapist, who suggests taking medication to right her. And everyone Tilly meets – a largely contented lot – is drawn to this variation from the behavioral norm, this splash in a placid environment. The more color, the better, the writers seem to say. (In this regard, maybe run this show in repertory with Next to Normal and see what happens.)
Also at the climax, in the midst of this almond-mania, Tilly declares that to truly save someone, “You must go where they are and get them.” The characters do go there by the end, but then cannot figure out whether they have saved anyone or have managed to become lost themselves, but are willing to live with the ambiguity as long as they are together. To throw everything off and embrace the unexplainable, for some, may not lend itself to the best plots, but the drama of knowing the unknowable – of letting in the things we can’t explain, like melancholy – holds a certain emotional satisfaction.
And anyone who sees Melancholy Play must let in not just the melancholy or the sanguinity, but all the humors and colors of life, and they’ll be all the richer for it. Richer than a bag of almonds.
“Melancholy Play: a chamber musical” runs through June 7 at the Piven Theatre Workshop, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. Performances are on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.) Tickets ($20-$35) are available online here or by phone (847) 866-8049.