Breaking the Light
Three Penny Theatre1723 25th St.
Sacramento, CA 95816
The problem with this cuckoo’s nest is that everyone talks about flying, and no one gets a chance to do so.
Breaking the Light, a play by Jill Figler with dramaturgy by Rick Foster, is set in a small-town hospital’s psych ward. There are three patients, a nurse recently transferred from surgery and an orderly. Anyone who’s ever seen the inside of a psych ward knows there is plenty of opportunity for drama, comedy and tragedy, and the cramped space of the day room certainly presents a good place to start.
We learn early on that the nurse, Gloria (Deborah Shalhoub), has transferred to psych to help a gifted artist struggling with sudden-onset psychosis. Gloria’s grandmother was also a gifted artist—her final painting hangs in the day room—and was also mentally ill (although the preferred word in the day-room seems to be “crazy”). The artist, Julia (Gay Cooper), had no history of mental illness, but is now thoroughly delusional with a propensity for aggression. It’s a diagnosis that Gloria doubts.
Her focus on Julia leads her to minimize the problems with Edgar (John Hopkins) and into conflict with Van (Jeff Webster), the ward’s orderly. The hospital is currently under investigation by a grand jury, because a malfunctioning door allowed another patient to escape, and he was later killed in a confrontation with a police officer. Continued budget cuts and service cutbacks have placed everyone under stress. Sound familiar?
Breaking the Light is a worst-case scenario for the deadly combination of budget cuts for service, understaffed facilities and absent administrators.
But instead of concentrating on the drama and conflict inherent in the situation, the focus of this play becomes the psychological baggage carried by Gloria, Van and, in the second act, Stan (Mark Stone), a cop who happens to be Edgar’s father. It really is a case of the inmates running the asylum—and the play suffers for it, descending into melodrama in the final act and muddying what had seemed to clearly be manifestations of mental illness in a realistic drama with the trappings of spiritual visions.
As patients on the ward, Cooper, Hopkins and Michele Koehler (Peggy) are outstanding. They do a fantastic and respectful job of portraying the reality of mental illness without exploiting the pain. Koehler, in particular, deserves high marks for such an excellent portrayal of a manic nurse who wants to kill herself.
Webster’s Van is at his best when interacting with the patients, and Shalhoub does a very good job at foreshadowing the crazy to come where Gloria is concerned. Penny Kline Meagher’s direction is focused and keeps the play moving well for most of the show.
The problems in the final act seem to be directly related to the play itself. While the recent events at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland indicate that the play’s resolution isn’t unrealistic, Breaking the Light doesn’t keep the focus where it belongs: on Gloria and Julia. Instead, it becomes a melodrama, and no one gets out from under the weight of that.