'Medicine' review — a thought-provoking play with too much sensory overload

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    November 22, 2021

    The way that one tells a story is often just as important as the tale that’s being told, which is why the clash of cacophony and tedium that comprises Enda Walsh’s Medicine ― currently playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse ― struck me as such an enervating experience.

    Medicine follows a patient named John (Domhnall Gleeson) who reenacts pre-recorded, immersive therapy sessions with the help of two actors and a skilled drummer (Seán Carpio) to remind himself why he has surrendered his autonomy to an unnamed mental health facility. This is in place of a monitored annual review presided over by a team of professionals so that ― regardless of what may occur during this session ― the predetermined conclusion is that John is unfit to return to society.

    Audiences divine this over the course of the 90-minute show while attempting to ascertain whether what is happening is real, a hallucination, or a memory. That Walsh chooses not to specify this from the get-go could be part of the fun. Many people in the audience the night I attended found the experience titillating. 

    I felt that because so much work was put into obfuscating where the story was going ― and because I figured out what was occurring too quickly ― there was not enough left over to hold my attention. It’s not that the actors were ever less than fully engaged; indeed, Gleeson’s extended bouts of yelling were truly affecting. But after being walloped over the head with bursts of temper tantrums, loud noises, light effects, random acts of unreasonable violence, and extreme silence, I found myself yearning for greater nuance. Imagine someone yelling the first half of a sentence at you and then whispering the latter part with gravitas. That sounds potentially enthralling on the surface, until you experience said effect play itself out repeatedly as the conflict of extremes did here. Far from exhilarating, I came away feeling detached and dehumanized.

    A major issue is the manner in which Medicine’s puzzle is unraveled. Part of the pleasure in observing any mystery is experiencing the twist ― realizing that the playwright has led you astray from the get-go as they masterfully remove your blindfold to reveal that you are teetering over the edge of a collapsed bridge that you’d have sworn was the road to certainty. One is not offered solid footing in Medicine until a full recording reveals the full dishonest truth ― that these sessions were more pageantry than an opportunity for redemption ― and we are left staring at the face of our leading man as the light of dawn washes across the stage.

    One could say that in directing this story, Walsh wants audiences to understand how mental unwellness feels. Where he failed, for me, was in providing the nuance of an ordinary world in which John had a reason to believe that he was in control and should be released from his asylum. Instead, as rendered by Gleeson, he is nebbish and lacks assertive drive over his own story from the start. 

    A reasonable person might look at what John is subjected to and ascertain that the asylum is willfully invalidating any sense of autonomy that he might have so that he agrees to continue paying them to control him; or that Walsh is artfully presenting the way that some mental health agencies operate so as to retain authority over their charges. That’s a solid perspective when one considers that abuse does exist and is often unmonitored if not ignored within the mental healthcare industry.  But, rather than engage with this critique directly, Walsh focuses on light shows, actors in strange costumes, and lip-synching to audio recordings that lack context. 

    As one of the actors who has been hired to convince John that he should remain within the asylum’s care, Mary #1 (Clare Barrett) exhibits a swaggering narcissism that one might expect from a person with borderline personality disorder. Contrasted with meek Mary #2 (Aoife Duffin) who feels sorry for John but fails to mount an adequate defense of her convictions, I kept wondering how it might look were Mary #1 exposed to the same experience. 

    Watching the foregone conclusion of someone who never had a chance get beat up by the world holds limited appeal. Though it is just as likely that as someone who is in recovery from concussion syndrome and is therefore vulnerable to sensory overload, this production was not meant for people like me. Regardless, Medicine is well-produced and may entertain those who have never been exposed to trauma or the carceral state.

    Medicine is running at St. Ann's Warehouse through December 5. Get tickets to Medicine on New York Theatre Guide.

    Photo credit: Domnhall Gleeson in Medicine. (Photo by Jess Shurte)