Psychomachia, the latest play by my good friend Jennifer Lane, is finally up and running at Theatre 54 at Shetler Studios. As an old professor of mine would say, “It would behoove you to see this play.”
The compelling story addresses not only how a family deals with grief and loss, but also the various ways a soul can grow incomplete. Ashlie Atkinson is Lydia, the remaining half of a complicated set of twins whose brother Johnny (Kyle Groff) has recently committed suicide. In her attempt to heal, Lydia is sucked into Johnny’s own personal “psychomachia”, his somewhat supernatural struggle between his body and his soul. By reading through his detailed yet disturbing journals, Lydia faces her own feelings of imperfection. But did her loss of a twin help create such voids, or was Johnny’s otherworldly instinct right all along? How Lydia faces her own incompletion drives her and her family to their breaking point.
Ashlie Atkinson is, indeed the pièce de résistance of the play, bringing at the same time lifting hope and utter despair to a moving character. Thank goodness for Atkinson’s strengthening wit. I think Lydia in the hands of any other actress would have succumbed into Johnny’s psychosis. Kyle Groff is both the loving and yet slightly evil twin. Appearing in flash backs and in Lydia’s mind, Johnny wavers back and forth between confidence in his act and his need for suicidal reassurance; to pull someone else down into the shit, as Lydia would say. The tragedy of Johnny’s suicide is the straw that breaks the Mercer’s marriage. Frank Deal and Cynthia Mace are their parents, Margaret and Edward, who seemingly have little control over their crumbling relationship. In past readings, Margaret was played by Debra Jo Rupp, who I have to say I preferred. Something about her positive and delightful demeanor made Margaret’s actions a little less reprehensible. Jennifer Laine Williams is charming as the youngest sibling Charlotte, whose simple need for a voice in the family wakes Lydia out of her spiritual journey. The many times that Lydia abruptly rejected Charlotte’s subtle requests for closeness broke my heart throughout the play, and yet Williams meekness was a nice counter to Atkinson’s power.
The real star here is the script, which I’ve watched develop over the years from a mystical mind bender into the more suggestively ghostlike piece it is today. Jennifer Lane has the ability to not only take you out of your comfort zone but also pull you back under the warm covers when it gets to be too much. The play wants you to question your spirituality; nay demands you to seek further divine truths yet mocks and admonishes you for ignoring your worldly life. The benefits of strengthening both spirit and body are evident; it’s the balance that is the struggle.
Psychomachia runs this week from the 15th until the 19th at Theatre 54. Check out the website for more information. Also, despite what any website or ticket agent may tell you, there is in fact an intermission.