Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper' to be staged in Elgin
"The Yellow Wallpaper," a play documenting one woman's descent into mental illness amid a backdrop of conventional 19th century treatment for "nervous hysteria," will be staged at Elgin Arts Showcase Thursday through Saturday, April 18-20.
Adapted from a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the play chronicles the treatment that caused her to descend into madness.
Diagnosed with "nervous hysteria" in 1892 by her physician, Gilman was forbidden to write and confined in isolation, the cure for this ailment at the time. Jane, the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper," is prescribed the same treatment by her physician husband, which leads to her studying the room's yellow wallpaper and believing she sees a figure moving behind the pattern.
Gilman suffered from what today is called "postpartum depression," said Katrina Syrris, who stars as Jane in this one-woman show.
"We've concluded, based on our research, that the postpartum depression was triggered after a history of depression, and that after being 'prescribed' solitary confinement, among other things, she came to experience mania and psychosis," Syrris said.
Jane is a tragic character, Syrris noted, and "her descent into madness is both fascinating and horrifying to watch, yet Charlotte Perkins Gilman was quite the opposite."
Gilman recovered from her experience thanks to the help of a friend, and wrote the story to expose how poorly physicians treated women, to inform the public "and the very physicians who refused to listen to her pleas, of the malpractice they accepted as their method of treatment," Syrris said. "She was actually incredibly successful and went on to be a prolific writer."
"Yellow Wallpaper" marks Syrris' return to the stage after almost two years. The play is the latest production of Goodly Creatures Theatre, of which Syrris is founder and artistic director.
However, "Wallpaper" is not a one-woman production and Syrris credits her creative team of assistant director/producer Rachel Stevens; stage manager Rachel Metcalfe; costumer Ashlynne Ludwig; lighting/sound designer Ray Nicholas; and set designers/builders Cory Knechtges, Jim Syrris and Michael Herbold, for bringing Jane's plight to the stage.
"I'm very fortunate that in playing this solo role, I'm surrounded by an immensely talented and dedicated team of artists," Syrris said. "Many of us can relate deeply to the isolation felt by Jane, the character based on the experiences of the original author. We feel personally called to tell the story that revolutionized the world of mental health, especially in regard to women."
To prepare for such an emotionally intense role, Syrris researched the topic and pulled from her own experiences.
Meditation, she noted, helped connect her to the character's experiences.
"Though I may not ever relate entirely to the pain she experienced, I actively employ my empathy with those who have, and use it to inspire my performance," she said. "In order to empathize this deeply, as artists we must open ourselves up to pain, and we cannot fear it."
A timely topic
Because this play touches on many uncomfortable and emotional subjects, Syrris hopes her audience will emerge with a better understanding of mental illness, and those who have mental illness will know they are not alone.
"Even though we have much further to go when it comes to fully understanding how to treat mental illness, we are grateful for how far the medical community has come thanks to artistic activists like Gilman," she said.
These women "spoke up against the crowd, sacrificed much and ultimately did not suffer in vain," Syrris said. "I want our audience to be equally as inspired to follow in Charlotte's footsteps, to speak out against the injustice they see, to value compassion over the status quo and to know that no matter their lot in life, they have the ability to change the world. One voice can do so much. Charlotte's did."
Although the story took place more than 100 years ago, the topic is still timely, Syrris noted, with current renewed interest in stories like "The Handmaid's Tale" that deal with female oppression.
"We are learning how to interpret our world through a cognizant lens, rather than blindly accepting the world as it is to avoid faux pas," she said. "This conversation will hopefully grow from gaining awareness into productive conversations about solutions, which I've already seen taking place."
Syrris also hopes seeing the circumstances that led to Jane's madness will help humanize the topic and in staging the play, emphasized a research-based and clinical approach to interpreting the character to avoid portraying her as a caricature of mental illness.
"We want to promote compassion, and a deeper understanding of the social variables that led to her demise. She is not just a cocktail of hormones and chemicals -- she is a living, breathing, sentient being who feels trapped, misunderstood and alone," Syrris said.
Those factors also caused her mental illness to escalate. "In real life, Charlotte had the confidence and understanding ear of a good friend to help her to heal. What we can learn from her story is that there is no hole so deep that we cannot ascend when we have the help of compassionate others."
If you goWhat: Goodly Creatures Theatre's production of "The Yellow Wallpaper"
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, April 18 and 19; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 20
Where: Elgin Art Showcase, 164 Division St., eighth floor, Elgin
Tickets: $12, student and senior; $15, adult
Preshow and post-show: Preshow exhibit of art by the women artists of The Awakenings Project, a grass-roots suburban initiative that fosters, advances and benefits creative efforts of artists with mental illnesses. Every show will conclude with a 30-minute discussion with cast and crew.