‘Anatomy of a Suicide’ by Alice Birch at Atlantic Theater Company
In Anatomy of a Suicide written by Alice Birch directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, the playwright examines suicide’s ancestral relativities between and among mothers and daughters. Underlying the developmental arc and structure of her complex play, Birch examines many questions. Two which appear to pertain the most directly are the following. What is the likelihood that a mother’s depressive, suicidal personality may be inherited as part of the familial DNA passed down through generations? If a mother commits suicide, what is the likelihood that her daughter will be unable to overcome the death impulse to follow her mother’s example, unconsciously nurtured by her mother to that end?
Currently running at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2018. Indeed, her approach to the topic is structurally unique and worthy of the tremendous efforts of the cast and director to reveal the mysterious bond between mothers and daughters that moves them in the direction of soul immolation.
Birch displays three generations of mothers and daughters: Carol (Carla Gugino) her daughter Anna (Celeste Arias) and Anna’s daughter Bonnie (Gabby Beans) on stage concurrently in real time. She unwinds their characters until they reach their apotheosis. They exist in different decades in the 20th and 21st century but appear before us in the present. Each mother anticipates the depressive ethos of her daughter in some of her interactions with others: spouse, friend, family.
Birch sets these three components of the depressive state in each character on stage simultaneously with their ancestral counterparts by defying the space/time continuum. As each character depicts her own manifestations of her condition, sometimes the dialogue overlaps repetitively as if a time warp occurs and you are allowed to see how the mother has impacted the daughter in the future (i.e. how Carol impacted Anna). Usually, Birch features a key vignette with one character while the other two draw inward. For example while Anna has a scene with a doctor, Carol is occupied in an action, i.e. cutting apples, smoking, etc. and Bonnie is involved in her own action. When their dialogue overlaps and there is a synchronicity of time and space, a still point of connection occurs.
Birch uses this structure of simultaneity, rhythmic dialogue, repetition and overlap to stimulate the audience’s dissection and analysis of the characters. Perhaps it is to understand how suicidal depression in the case of this family leaps genetically (?) telepathically (?) from mother to daughter without knowing the etiology of each woman and specifically how or if such a transmission occurs. Birch depicts Carol’s, Anna’s and Bonnie’s depressive, addictive and emotional isolation in events unique to each and not in chronological order, but always simultaneously. However, though we see the symptoms and reactions which are the tip of the iceberg, we never know the rationale why these women are suicidal because it is unknowable. It is unconscious. Thantos, the death impulse exists in each of us, as does eros, the life impulse. Why does one overcome the other in these women is not what concerns Birch. That it is there in this family group is enough to investigate and atomize.
For Carol and Anna the suicidal impulse is acute at the outset of the play. Carol’s husband John (Richard Topol) confronts her about her bandaged/sliced wrists and her thoughtful accommodation for him to have enough dinners for a week or so, which she has cooked and frozen for him to thaw out after her death. Such premeditation is crystal clear; she has thought about what she will do and planned for it, yet she tells John everything is “fine.” Later in her segments the evidence mounts and we understand why “it is fine.”
For his part, John confronts her with great passivity, an element of her depressive state she perhaps wishes to conclude with finality. Divorce would not be final enough, we learn in a subsequent later vignette that is companionable to a simultaneous event with Anna and Bonnie. Nevertheless, John is frightened, yet incompetent to handle her. Through various scenes he cannot read her or cogently, effectively deal with her flattened affect that hides the dark abyss within. Carol’s various scenes unfold tied not to a time order but to a thematic familial order with her daughter Anna and Granddaughter Bonnie who demonstrate their own angst: Anna in her relationship with her spouse Jamie (Julian Elijah Martinez) and Bonnie in her interest and relationship with Jo (Jo Mei ).
A telling event occurs during Carol’s pregnancy and after baby Anna is born. We and John understand that she will never have another child; sex is not pleasurable and she is only staying in the marriage to raise their daughter. Each vignette reinforces Carol’s intense emotional interior trauma that Carla Gugino’s brilliantly flickers to the surface through the character’s strained, straight-lipped smile, wooden responses and modulated, refined voice.
What happened to her, to Anna, to Bonnie? Why are they depressed? Does the historical cause matter if it is genetic, a brain disorder or some other causation that is beyond the kin of the medical profession? Interventions are tried to no avail: shock therapy, perhaps rehab for Anna for her drug addiction. Nothing works. No human interaction satisfies to stem the death impulse.
We realize Carol is fine when she succeeds in achieving her goal in life. By the end of her scenes (she is staged on the far left as the progenitor mother of depression in the 20th century) we come to understand why Carol responds as she does to John that she is “fine.” Her mind is made up. She has planned and most probably will continue to plan and justify her suicide to herself because her pain is relentless, without limit, infinite as long as she is in her body. Thus, when we finally learn that she has killed herself, it is anti-climactic. The same is not true for Anna who, in her vignettes, gyrates between anxiety and calm, hyperactivity and peace with husband Jamie.
Regardless, Birch blindsides us and Carol’s and Anna’s spouses with their suicides to end the roiling hell within. For Carol we know it is coming, yet when we hear of it surprisingly tucked into a conversation, we remember her memorial to herself, “I’m fine.” Anna’s suicide is as Anna is, dramatic.
At the outset of the play when Carol and John have their discussion about Carol’s suicide attempt and she affirms she’s “fine,” Celeste discusses with a doctor friend (Vince Nappo) the necessity for an injection in a frenetic insistence to charm him. The doctor knows what she wants and ignores her despite her lightening responses and “hail good fellow well met” justification for it. Her heightened state, during which she discounts how she broke her arm, is like an episode of rapid recycling in a bi-polar disorder patient. In their synchronized scenes, obviously, both women display warning signs that they are ripe for suicide, but in their own personalities and iterations which are antithetical.
Perhaps, Birch posits one clue for Carol’s and Anna’s dark intentions and eliminates it for Bonnie. Carol’s and Anna’s intolerable misery is exacerbated when they become pregnant and have their daughters. Does this symbolize the end of their lives? Indeed, Celeste’s nihilism appears even greater than Carol’s and her commitment to killing herself happens in hyperbole part of the up/down of her life that Birch reveals is her nature. On the other hand Bonnie solves the problem of mother/ daughter suicidal ideation carried to her through an inherited gene pool. A doctor, Bonnie makes a canny choice about relationships and doesn’t put herself in the position of her grandmother and mother. But perhaps she is her father’s daughter, not her mother’s. Again the etiology is never clarified, not that it should be.
The play intrigues with the everpresent present of three women in the same family reflecting how they respond to the unchanging underlying death impulse as it manifests with synchronicity in Carol, Anna and Bonnie over time, yet also with different and particular iterations based upon each individual woman. Staged simultaneously across three time periods, we think we can understand the suicidal threads in these characters and especially that Bonnie doesn’t physically move a hand against herself.
At times refocusing which vignette to watch to break through the overlapping dialogue was challenging. However, the uniform superb acting drew out the sequences appropriately and the pacing of the dialogue was letter perfect so that the key lines to be repeated resonated with rhythmic precision.
The set whose three walls are painted a green-blue color and beset with complementary plants appears vibrant on first inspection. However, the wash basin in Carol’s space which looks like those in a doctor’s office with the high curving faucet, and a bathtub with similar faucet in Anna’s space convert the set toward the clinical and sterile. This is so despite the ensemble bringing in tables to suggest dinners with friends and other activities.
The set puts one on notice that this will not be a typical play about suicide with its recumbent, empathetic emotionalism. This will be as unique as the title implies and a detached, observational approach will be employed. Indeed, as we follow Birch’s presentation and the director’s shepherding of a truly superb cast, we become like scientists viewing, as if under glass familial fault-lines that break the family. It is an empty exercise and we are no closer to understanding another element of a mysterious anti-life position of human beings: the urge, necessity, the repeated will in some families, in this play mothers and daughters, to end their lives.
By the end of the play, we remain detached. Such detachment about the most violent act one can take against oneself is frightening. But the play encourages objectification for a reason. Objectification in our culture contributes to feelings of isolation. Being or feeling “the other,” not belonging, not communicating in a felt empathetic way to bridge one’s “aloneness” in pain are states of misery. Yet, for these mothers to put their daughters in that state indicates they were hopeless. It is the height of objectification, not having empathy for oneself to live to the next day. Birch’s work enlightens and devastates.
Noted are Mariana Sanchez (sets) Kaye Voyce (costumes) Jiyoun Chang (lights) Rucyl Frison (sound) Hannah Wasileski (projetions) Tommy Kurzman (wig, hair & makeup).
Anatomy of a Suicide runs at the Atlantic Theater Company (336 West 20th) with no intermission until 15th March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.