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Driven by demons; A riveting close-up of poet's battle with schizophrenia

Catherine, a writer, a published poet, has been recently diagnosed with schizophrenia. She sits staring at a blank journal, talking to herself and listening: "The words are burning and squeezing from inside," she says to no one, "and I feel like I'm going to -- melt." She doesn't -- but she could, at any moment.

Thus begins John Olive's disturbing and intense play, "Standing on My Knees," a close-up look at Catherine's demons, a list that includes a terrible decision she must make.

Catherine (played by Katie White) has written when she has been ill -- like "an acrobat climbs on rhyme to a high wire of his own making," Lawrence Ferlinghetti famously wrote about poets in his "Coney Island of the Mind" -- but her doctors have prescribed Thorazine, an anti-psychotic drug meant to calm disorder and anxiety, a "chemical lobotomy," as it is known. Now, very often, Catherine can't put a sentence together. Ideas are random, disconnects are major themes.

If she's "well," medicated to the max, creativity is gone or diminished. Off the meds, the voices are back, but she can madly scribble and temporarily please her publisher, Alice, a pushy, fair-weather friend who has problems of her own. She's not helpful.

Enter a young man named Robert, an up-and-comer in the financial world. In a moment of lucidity, Catherine attends a party, gets into the wine, meets Robert and there are sparks. Robert is attracted. Well, OK, she's "troubled." Can't be too serious.

But the lad can't handle Catherine's problems, misunderstanding their gravity, unable to help, suddenly adrift in a world of depression and dysfunction. He's overwhelmed.

Alice, Robert and Joanne, a well-meaning but seemingly disinterested therapist, do their best with Catherine, but there is a strong sense of dread in "Standing on My Knees" that the story is going to end badly. Playwright Olive's script leaves the door of hope ajar. A crack, nothing more.

Buffalo Laboratory Theatre continues a diverse and challenging season with this heartbreaking work. Director Taylor Doherty has moved the story on stage, the audience close by, suddenly voyeurs, and he is right to have done so: Doherty wants watchers to "see every tear."

BLT superbly integrates light, sound and special effects. Much of it is the work of Steven Fox, who, along with Doherty, underscores Catherine's ills with the pessimistic music of Bela Bartok and the dissonant sounds of John Cage.

The award-winning White is extraordinary as Catherine: vacant, hallucinatory, all quivers and tics, visions real, needs on display, a human train wreck. Wonderful work. Michael Seitz, Linda Stein and Marie Costa complete an able, often excellent ensemble.

***

"Standing on My Knees"

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)    

WHEN: Through March 26    

WHERE:Presented by Buffalo Laboratory Theatre at Hilbert College, William Swan Auditorium, 5200 South Park Ave., Hamburg    

TICKETS: $20 general, $15 students and seniors    

INFO: 202-9033, wwwbuffalolabtheatre.org.

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