Mental illness is a tough and touchy subject. Like shoes, it comes in many styles, from “simple” depression to full-blown schizophrenia. Anyone who doesn’t have the disorder—or know someone who does—has no way of knowing the fear, frustration and (frequent) failure of dealing with mental illness.
Accepting that mental illness is a disorder, not a personal problem of our own causing, is a necessary first step. Like diabetes, it can’t be cured, but it can be treated. Psychotherapy and medications (often more than one, in a “cocktail”) may prove effective. However, this better living through chemistry requires finding the right drug, or combination of drugs, in the right dosage to prevent side effects often experienced on the way to a successful treatment.
Some medicines leave the patient dull, in a mental fog. Other side effects may affect the appetite, energy levels, sex drive—or more. Sometimes patients decide they would be better off without the drugs.
It is against this backdrop that “Family Cabins,” a new play by Irwin Rosenblum, takes place. It is the first full production in the Howe Ave Theater at Howe Ave Park. The Fulton-El Camino Parks District invested more than $100,000 to create this theater space for the community, including new acoustics and flooring as well as high-tech sound and lighting equipment.
In “Family Cabins,” Jane (Andrea Kersten) returns from a year abroad just in time to celebrate her “Gotcha Day.” That’s the day she was adopted, joining mother Rose (Jennifer York), father David (Dan Cohen) and brother Eli (Shane Burrows). The family celebrates the date each year as her birthday into their completed family.
Jane, who had struggled with mental illness but appeared to have achieved a workable medical balance, insisted upon going to Europe alone, despite mother Ruth’s grave concerns. Upon her return, however, it becomes evident that sometime during her time away, Jane had made an ill-advised decision to stop taking her medication. She feels lighter, freer, more alive without the drugs, she says. But as her time off her meds grows, Jane becomes more and more manic, spewing conspiracy theories, trying to connect completely unconnected conversations and events.
Finally, one night, her manic episode takes a turn that will change the family irrevocably. Family dynamics, conflicts, secrets and lies are revealed in ways that could not have been foreseen.
The characters of Jane and Eli are most prominent. Siblings but not-technically so, they are young adults facing most of the difficulties offspring their age encounter: trying to establish a life and a persona apart from Mom and Dad. It isn’t easy in the best of circumstances, but add Jane’s mental instability and everything gets more difficult.
The cast here is uniformly excellent. This is the most natural acting on a local theater stage in a long, long time. Jane’s psychotic break is so real that it’s uncomfortable to watch. Actor Kersten, who is just beginning a career in mental health services and psychology, is frighteningly authentic.
Director Leo McElroy — a strong actor in his own right — gives the plot a flow and rhythm that is effective and unforced. As you might have guessed, the play contains strong language and mature content.
“Family Cabins” is not just good. It’s important. The play is presented in cooperation with NAMI Sacramento, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI Sacramento offers support, education and advocacy for people coping with mental illness and for their family members. All profits from this production will go to NAMI Sacramento.
This is the final weekend for “Family Cabins.” Only three opportunities remain to see it. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Howe Ave Theater is at 201 Cottage Way in Howe Ave Park. Tickets are $20 general, $18 for SARTA members and $15 for seniors, available for cash only at the door.
For advance tickets (without a service fee) from Brown Paper Tickets, visit FamilyCabinsPlay.com.