This afternoon, I attended a performance at the Pacifica Spindrift Players Stage 2. I was treated, um…I don’t know if “treated” is the right word. It’s not often that I have personally witnessed a script tackle an issue head on while being both very insightful, funny, and genuinely moving. The play Coping Through Pain written and directed by Elizabeth Fatum was exactly that experience.
Susan (Maggie de Vera) is a woman who has a “unique” way of coping with stress and emotion. This play was brought to life because, like all great theatre before, it’s a necessary topic that needs to be brought to light for the safety of those involved.
The lights went down in the audience and came up on the stage that had a podium, a white board on an easle, and a chair behind the podium; all of which are stage right of center. When the first few actors came on set, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It seemed like it was supposed to be improvised interactions between various groups. Then, enter Susan and you get sucked in by her presence. She begins as a quiet demure woman somewhat clumsy, but when needed, she becomes assertive until she accomplishes her goal, then goes back to quiet and unassuming. And she makes you laugh while doing it. A quick lesson in acting: playing the opposites within moments or beats of each other create interest and energy. Susan uses the following during the opening scene: quiet and mousey to strong and assertive and then back which is funny when done well, and Ms. de Vera was right on the money.
The funny thing about this is that once she gets the actors on stage to leave, she starts the show as though she were presenting to us a lecture about Controlling Uncontrollable Things. She writes the acronym on the board – C.U.T. She begins to explain that emotions and stress are things that are uncontrollable items in life that actually can be controlled. She begins to use an example of a volcano and is suddenly interrupted by a loud thump backstage and then some of the other actors re-enter the stage and play out a scene, and you come to realize that those actors are the physical representations of Susan’s thoughts that show the audience glimpses into Susan’s past and private life which feature Stephanie Rose Neimann who plays Young Susan. This explains the opening of the show. Clever. Following the departure of the “thoughts”, there is a small interaction between Susan with a person that was a focus in the scene before. Once Susan “gathers” her thoughts, she continues with the presentation aspect but is again interrupted. The play is told through this manner of storytelling.
As you can probably guess from the acronym, she suffers from Deliberate Self Harm Syndrome and is considered a “cutter.” This behavior is not unique. The problem is that it’s such a personal act that no one talks about it. And it’s personal for any number of reasons. Sometimes there’s feelings of shame or guilt tied to the action, while some do it because they “feel numb” and are looking to “feel alive.” This behavior affects millions of people, and in a society that is so full of pressure to fit in, the possibility for it to become worse is high. Ms. Fatum made it a point to explain in the show that Susan was a bright and well rounded person. There isn’t a general group that this action encompasses. There is no way to simply look at a person and know if this something that they are going through. I am grateful that Ms. Fatum has planted her foot in the ground and heaved this issue in the audience’s lap.
There are many great moments throughout this too short 40 minute performance. One of the most honest, I think, was when Jodie (Kyeshia Arrington) is talking to Susan and offering her a friendly ear to confide in. One would think that something so simple and easy could be pulled of by anyone. That’s the problem. Nothing is ever that simple. This particular scene felt so genuine that I felt like I was actually in a high school watching two friends secretly talking.
Another great moment is again Susan interacting with her Mom (Shannon Quinn) after a flashback. This was a really well written scene. The mother was questioning her role in her child’s illness.
The most powerful moment is the point when Susan realizes that while she isn’t hurting anyone else, she is hurting the most important person. Herself. At this point, the entire cast is on stage and Susan has just stopped Young Susan from placing another cut on her arm. Then while in an embrace, the Susans in unison ask for help. The rest of the cast, also in unison answer the call. It’s a very moving scene.
Congratulations to Pacifica Spindrift Players Stage 2 for producing an important piece of work for the sake of all those that suffer from this behavior. While there were a few tiny, tiny choices I would have liked to have seen done in a different way, this was a great debut for Stage 2. I live in Campbell, and if this is the type of shows that Stage 2 will be performing, I will be more than happy to drive the 53 miles to see another.
My hope for Ms. Fatum is that, while this piece has grown from a 5 minute skit to a 40 minute play, she continues her work on it thus creating a full length 2 act play. I feel like so many people will be shocked to learn what I have during the 20 minute talk back after the show. If there is a way to incorporate some of that information into the middle of the play to understand the mindset of a person with this illness it could possibly have a bigger emotional pay off in the end. Still, should you ever get the chance to see this show produced elsewhere, please see it.