Below is a piece I have been working on for some time, hence the gap in proceedings. Written for my Seriously Good! page, I felt the subject matter was deserving of maximum exposure, however … Mad House was/is the magnificent play we were privileged to see in London in July. It left a lasting impact on us all. Desperate to do it justice, it was difficult to find the right words. I hope I have …
MAD HOUSE, Ambassadors Theatre, London.
How does one do justice to a piece of literature which penetrates the soul? Words which trigger a plethora of emotion, characters all too recognisable within one’s own family? Scarily, like a reflection in a mirror … Two hours of escapism or, in truth, a reality check? A play penned by the award-winning American writer, Theresa Rebeck, this is the world premiere of Mad House, which opened on the 15th June for a strictly limited run.
‘A family reunion. Time to pay your last disrespects.’
How lucky was I to catch acclaimed actor, Bill Pullman, on This Morning that day in June, there to promote Mad House? A favourite of mine for many years, one is guaranteed that his participation denotes a film or play of calibre. No question. First smitten when I saw him, almost thirty years ago, now, alongside Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping, it was his portrayal of Joe Keller in the 2019 production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Old Vic, London – with Sally Field as Kate Keller – which sealed my admiration. All My Sons, arguably my favourite play, is nothing short of heart wrenching as one bears witness to the destruction of a family, powerless in the face of insidious guilt. The tragedy of Shakespeare’s King Lear, too, lies in the complexity of family and a father’s catastrophic misjudgement of his children. Family. No greater source of love, loyalty, jealousy, insecurity, ego and, consequently, oft irreparable wounds. Universal, a writer’s gift.
I discovered American black comedy-drama, August: Osage County, penned by lauded playwright Tracy Letts, on release of the 2013 film of the same name. Its impact was such that I, immediately, sought a copy of the play, itself, driven to study the carefully crafted lines depicting the ubiquitous fissures present in every family – and their devastating fragility. Both remain with me, for pathos lies in the familiar; the ability to touch a nerve, draw emotion from that well of personal experience one would rather forget. Buried in a shallow grave. Almost ten years on, Mad House packs the same punch, in spades!
As I listened to Bill Pullman’s synopsis of the play, it was, at once, dangerously close to home: a dying father triggering the return of his three children, one out of love, the other two intent on their inheritance. Immediate echoes of King Lear, as the play opens, it is the youngest, Michael (David Harbour) who is in situ – childhood home in rural Pennsylvania – looking after Daniel (Bill Pullman). Immediately aware that Michael is a gentle giant, his embittered father takes a sadistic pleasure in berating him, literally tossing his care to the ground. One’s sympathy is, instantly, with the youngest son who has, recently, spent some time – self-sectioned – in a psychiatric hospital. Clearly a troubled family, whatever the history, the patriarch seems devoid of respect for Michael who, consequently, is devoid of self-esteem. A lifetime labelled mentally unstable, the black sheep of the family, will do that. The introduction of Lilian, the hospice nurse assigned to Daniel, however, provides an objective eye; in turn, a catalyst for the truth.
There is no place for an elaborate set. Act I takes place in the kitchen of a family home, unchanged. Act II, courtesy of a stage rotation, transpires on the back porch/stoop. Here, the spotlight is on the siblings, Pam and Nedward – Michael’s older sister and brother – having returned to assess and claim their inheritance. Negating the passing years, all three, once more, adopt their childhood roles – even fighting over bedrooms – and thus the audience is afforded an invaluable insight into the past. Pam, the eldest, is strong, domineering and capable – but, still consumed with jealousy for the little brother who claimed her mother’s heart, she is cruel. Nedward, meantime, is harmless but weak; once influenced by his sister, now his wife. Michael? The youngest. Sensitive but beleaguered by a lack of self-belief, he carries with him a childhood of belittlement and taunts in which his mother was his only cheerleader. Crucially, the audience learns that she died when he was in hospital, never coming to see him. A grief he has found impossible to reconcile.
As one becomes increasingly invested in this sad, embittered family, it transpires that Lilian has assessed the players and made her own judgement. A force for good, her allegiance lies with Michael and it is her intervention which, at last, provides the catalyst which sets him free. Discovering a letter addressed to him amongst family papers, it is from his mother. In it, she explains her absence, re-affirming her love for and her belief in him. Cruelly withheld by his father, the envelope contains two pencils. So simple yet so incredibly poignant. In the ensuing bitter exchange between the three siblings on the porch, one comes to appreciate the childhood dynamic which lingers; the depth of jealousy carried by Pam, unmistaken as she, sadistically, snaps the pencils. Drawing a collective gasp from the audience, I surmise mine were not the only tears.
Mad House speaks to the heart – and remains there. A microcosm of humanity, this play juxtaposes good and bad and the power of love both to overcome and to destroy. The family dynamic was such that Daniel resented his children for claiming his wife’s love; Pam was consumed by jealousy for her youngest brother, her mother’s favourite and focus, and Nedward, in his weakness, was hers for the moulding. Michael? The innocent scapegoat in a troubled family system. The centre of his mother’s world, he was belittled by his jealous father and taunted by siblings who felt displaced and insecure. He, meanwhile, adopted the mantle given, carrying the inner turmoil of them all. Crucially, two pages within the accompanying programme belong to Jordan Dann, LP, a psychoanalyst, author and speaker, entitled Family Systems and the Role of the Identified Patient. Complicated but enlightening, in summary, ‘at the heart of the phenomenon of the identified patient’ is a family which has ‘”outsourced” the painful feelings onto one individual because they could not regulate themselves.’ Adds a different dimension to the term ‘black sheep’!
‘In my work as a Gestalt psychoanalyst specializing in attachment trauma, as a patient begins to reveal themselves to me in the early stages of treatment, I am always listening for how their family continues to live inside them. Just as a director listens to the overarching themes and motifs of a play, I am listening for the echoes of the past underlying an individual’s present symptoms and circumstances. It is often the ways in which we stay “loyal” to the unconscious dynamics in our family that keep us trapped in the past, unable to move into the future with vitality and freedom.’
Jordan Dann, LP.
So much which hits home and therein lies the power of Mad House. The jealousy, self-doubt, greed; the good, the bad. Siblings, so different – though from the same gene pool – securing Power of Attorney, intent only on monetary gain and the means to punish one of their own. Lived it. Seen it.
Daniel and Michael, together, share the final scene. One of catharsis; acceptance; forgiveness, even. Daniel requests Michael’s help in ending his life and, ironically, there is warped respect in his choosing the son to whom he has afforded none. Finally, though, there is honesty – and love; for Michael was never the problem …
There is a form of peace in the ending. The age-old good triumphing over evil, as it were. Turns out, as was his mother’s wish, the family home was always willed to Michael. Seems Daniel, too, knew his children … The irony is, while Pam and Nedward – oblivious – focus, only, on their elusive inheritance, it means nothing to Michael. Never did. All he ever craved was the love and respect of his parents. Cruelly, he was forced to doubt that of his mother when, without explanation, she failed to come and see him in hospital. No more, thanks to Lilian and the missing letter. Thus, as the final curtain falls, he picks up his bag and leaves. No longer a vessel for the displaced emotions of his troubled family, he is, at last, unburdened; set free.
King Lear. All My Sons. August: Osage County. Mad House. How does one do justice to a piece of literature which penetrates the soul? Family. No greater source of love. No greater power to wound …
This is Trish, signing off.