Jacques Lacan, the great French psychoanalyst, maintained that the unconscious mind is structured like a language. Within our unconscious, he argued, one item stands in for another in a signifying process driven by encoding and decoding. I was reminded of this proposition while watching "Scotch and Madness," the new play by Tatiana Gelfand and Paul Jensen at Alleyway Theatre.
Here we meet Fred, played by Timothy Goehrig, who is working a crisis hotline on Christmas Eve. Lonely, despondent and unhappy in his job, Fred cracks open a bottle of J&B scotch he had intended as a gift for a relative. Fred’s own problems and memories begin to blend with those of his troubled callers, and reality starts to slip away. His uncanny capacity to plumb the depths of his callers’ problems and to decode their own lack of self-awareness is not a talent that he seems to be able to apply to himself.
Goehrig is excellent in this marathon of a role that requires him to be in every scene as he shifts between realities.
The playwrights introduce us to an array of characters who represent callers, members of Fred’s family and even Fred’s younger self.
Gelfand directs the production, and she focuses on the clear presentation of the script’s language, rather than in the story’s graceful movement through space and time, or its fluctuations between consciousness and unconsciousness. That is to say, the audience is on its own to decode the shifts between Fred’s clients and the family members they metaphorically represent.
The workings of the play’s freewheeling game of association are not immediately apparent to the audience, but from the moment Fred walks across the stage to be in the physical presence of “Anna,” that obscure object of desire played by Jamie Nablo, the game is afoot. Drinking scotch has pushed him to a place where the mad dream work of his unconscious mind has taken over.
Betsy Bittar plays Alicia, a woman unhappy in her marriage who copes by swilling beer and berating the vulnerable mother of her unsupportive husband. Her narrative overlaps neatly with one of Fred’s traumatic childhood memories, and Bittar will also play Fred’s mother, Alice.
The actors gamely embody this assortment of extreme characters and most are called upon to play more than one person.
Bittar is hilariously feisty as a woman who is belligerent in her lack of self-knowledge. Kathleen Rooney, as the mother-in-law and later as Fred’s grandmother, provides an endless and entertaining parade of demented faces as she shuffles from scene to scene.
Daniel Greer boldly bullies his way through as Fred’s abusive Uncle Don. James Cichocki is delightfully sleazy as Fred’s absent and self-involved father. Young Eddie Bratek is very good as Fred’s younger self, or “Petie” in this caller’s narrative. Jaimee Harmon provides harsh severity as Fred’s successful sister who has escaped the family and seems to be making a guest appearance in his dreams.
In the play’s most playful foray into unconscious madness, Fred finds himself in a group therapy session run by “Nurse Latex,” a man in extreme woman’s clothing, a dominatrix in white, a nurse who is not nurturing. (The costume by Todd Warfield is outrageous). The counseling group is made up entirely of Fred’s family, and Nurse Latex, played as a droll variation on Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” continually admonishes them against any “cross talk.” There is to be no real communication in this group therapy session.
The layers of communication and thwarted communication in the play are intriguing. The obstacles preventing Fred from coming to terms with his life find metaphor in the mediation of the telephone he uses in his work, in the distortions of his dreams and in the failed communications of his clients. Ultimately, however, his breakthrough will occur in another language and in another culture, as the assorted characters of his dream madness are transplanted into a memory of a Shinto mikoshi procession.
Through the Japanese ritual, intended to bestow blessings on an entire community, Fred learns that it is not the individual events of his life that are most important. It is not the stops along the way that matter most. What matters is the journey itself as we travel to the top of life’s metaphoric hill. By the play’s end, Fred is ready to pursue his life’s happiness, even if he might have started his journey going in the wrong direction.
“Scotch and Madness”
★ ★ ★ (out of 4)
Presented by Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday through March 14. Tickets are $38 general, $20 for students and available by calling (852-2600) or online at alleyway.com.