The haunting stories of eight forgotten residents of a Central New York insane asylum come screaming to life in the Brazen Faced Varlets’ original production of “Hopeless Cases,” now on stage in Empire State College in Cheektowaga.
The play, a series of vignettes written and performed by Varlets company members, was inspired by the 1995 discovery of 400 suitcases left behind by patients of the Willard Psychiatric Center, near Seneca Lake. Each suitcase, recently photographed in exquisite detail in a popular series by Jon Crispin, contained a glimpse into the peculiar and often horrifying state of the American mental health system during the 19th and much of the 20th centuries.
The suitcases and their contents provide irresistible source material. The troupe has animated many of those stories with considered writing, passionate performances and a deep sense of responsibility to the innocent victims of the mental health system and their forgotten stories.
When it comes to producing a cohesive narrative, the collective writing approach can be muddled and potentially confusing for audiences. But the Varlets have largely avoided the pitfalls of that tactic by dividing the evening into eight self-contained vignettes, each with its own distinctive voice.
The play begins with a ghostly tone poem, in which the former residents of the asylum lament the myriad ways in which they were discarded by society. Soon enough we’re on to the first narrative, Elizabeth Oddy’s “Two Signatures for the Advocate,” a compelling if overlong story about abolitionist Evelyn Jean Reynolds Tappan, who was institutionalized in part for advocating that women no longer bear children as long as slavery remained the law of the land.
“The Choice,” by Theresa DiMuro Wilber and Jeff Wilber about a patient’s struggle with multiple personality disorder, was a sweet and uplifting break among more harrowing stories.
Kerry Alsheimer and Kelly Beuth’s strained piece “Fire is Like Time/The Day Room,” about a crazed pyromaniac, was at odds with the narrative tone of the other stories. But Jenny Gembka’s “The Ladder” brought us back to traditional storytelling with the tragic tale of a housewife whose husband committed her to the asylum because she was a lesbian.
Mike Beiter’s monologue, “My Grandmother’s Eyes,” despite containing some vivid sections, was overwritten and underperformed. The evening wrapped up nice with “Lucy, 1990s,” a devastating story about post-partum depression starring and written by Brittany Kucala, and “Smoke Filled Memories,” Beuth and Jane Cudmore’s brief reflection about a woman afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder after losing her daughter in the fatal 1954 fire at Cleveland Hill School.
Politically, the production is remarkably even-handed. Its writers take pains not to preach, and make an effort to cast parts of the mental health system in a positive light.
Though the acting is uneven, some vignettes fall flat and it runs nearly two hours with no intermission, the production has enough redeeming moments to make it worthwhile for avid theatergoers or those with an interest in mental health.
What: “Hopeless Cases”
Where: Brazen Faced Varlets, Empire State College, 2875 Union Road, Cheektowaga
When: Through March 21
Tickets: $15 or pay what you can on Thursdays