Davidson Theatre Turns Melancholy into Laughter

Katie Walsh-

From L to R: Sophie McHugh ‘18, Ashley Behnke ‘19, Lucas Weals ‘19, Sam Giberga ‘19, and Niara Webb ‘20.
Photo by Chris Record (courtesy of College Communications).

I came to Melancholy Play ready to feel sad—to feel, rather, pretty melancholy. That’s simple, right? You hear a play is called the “Melancholy Play” and you’re ready, as an audience member, to be emotionally distraught (or at least to seem emotionally distraught if that’s the general ethos of the other audience members; after all, you don’t want to be that psychopath not crying when you’re meant to, right?). A play with the paratext “Melancholy” dictated to me that I should probably not laugh at all. Maybe I should pack tissues, or a handkerchief. (There’s a “lost art” of the handkerchief, according to the play’s lead, Tilly, played by Sophie Rae McHugh ‘18.)

And yet, through the hour and a half long production, all I could do was laugh. The “Jacobean direct-address drama” (i.e a play which breaks the fourth wall), staged in the intimate Barber Theatre, drew laughter from me even when I believed it ought to have begotten some kind of chesty, nose-dripping sobbing. So much for the tissues.

The border-line absurdist play—set in the most melancholy American state one could imagine, Illinois—revolves around bank teller, Tilly, who attracts lovers with her charismatic air of “melancholy.” Tilly’s sadness becomes a siren-like weapon for seduction. McHugh conveys perfectly the abstract emotion “melancholy,” as expected from the theater department’s stalwart leading lady. 

Tilly is disposed to fitty bouts of sadness, sometimes because of the rain, mainly because she’s in love, or even at times because of that lull in the afternoon when everything feels sort of dead or unfinished. In the play, melancholy is defined as a changeability of mood—a purgatory-like place between definite emotions. But melancholy in the play’s universe is also something beautiful, like the single crooning, pensive-sounding cello (played skillfully by Nick Pohl ‘18) that punctuates moments of emotional reveal in the play.

Tilly’s melancholy often seems purposefully contrived, and lies somewhere between recognizable “happy” and “sad.” However, the magic of Tilly’s melancholy is that it invokes in the audience as much jocundity as it does in her lovers.

But it’s this inversion of emotion that Director Matt Hunter ‘18’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s play is attempting to conduct, and, more to the point, to deal with thematically. Ruhl posits that maybe it’s a cultural issue that Americans believe we must feel “happiness” all the time or else we’re failed people (and might as well be better off as inanimate almonds). To quote Ruhl’s foreword: “Our cultural zeal to eradicate depression in the current pharmaceutical era (as we should) that possibly other shades of emotion were getting eased out of the language and the culture at the same time—and perhaps it wasn’t worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

In a Vogue video several years back, a Frenchwoman passing by on the street was asked what the differences between American culture and French culture were. She responded with something to the effect of: “Americans think they must be happy all the time. What is the point in this? It is not real.” This nonchalant French denouncement is likely what Ruhl was attempting to convey when she wrote Melancholy Play.

In short, Americans think they have to be happy. And the wish to erase more nuanced human emotions—ones that aren’t necessarily “happy”—obscures living an authentic life. The characters of Ruhl’s play become overwhelmingly in love with Tilly because she conveys this more deeply-felt attachment to life, rather than living in a farcical emotional monolith of “happiness.”

In poignant moments Tilly often cites non-English lexicons (though she never quite remembers the word she references) to convey a vocabulary our culture lacks, alluding to the many complex, deeply specific words like the Japanese phrase mono no aware (roughly translated as “the pathos of things,” or the sadness resulting from the ephemeral nature of life.)

As Tilly becomes progressively happier, her troupe of both male and female lovers—including Lorenzo, a therapist; Frank, a tailor (played by the wonderfully funny Sam Giberga ‘19); Frances, a hairdresser (played by the effervescent Ashley Behnke ‘19); and Joan, a British nurse (played by the refreshingly subtle Niara Webb 20’)—become increasingly more unhappy.

The gleeful psychiatrist Lorenzo is the first to fall into Tilly’s alluring atmosphere of miasmic dolefulness. Lorenzo,  played by the theater department’s newest addition, Lucas Weals ‘19, picks apart this American tendency toward super-imposed cultural happiness. Lorenzo is from an “unspecified European country,” and perhaps pulled the most laughs from the audience with his  “unspecified European accent.” (Weals somehow convincingly conveying “unspecified.”)

The characters seem drawn to Tilly’s melancholy because it allows her deeper, more viscerally-felt emotional connectivity with others and with the natural world around her.  Tilly’s hyper-sensitivity to life plays on the audience’s, and her lovers’, quotidian insensitivity to small unnoticed crevices of “beauty,” like the way rain falls on flowers in the springtime, or the soft green light of a beauty salon after hours.

Many of the characters, especially Frank, openly self-narrate and break the fourth wall, provoking these questions of emotional intimacy in the audience as much as they do in the play’s characters. The set contributes to this interactivity with the audience: windows fall from the sky, seemingly out of nowhere, and characters seem to be drawn to them, looking out into the audience as if we are the very culture that has led to their emotionally confused plight. (And for all intents and purposes, we are.)

The highlight of the set, inspired by surrealist artist René Magritte, had to be the cloud of upturned furniture hanging above the stage. Impressively designed and engineered by Aren Carpenter ‘18, the set gives the impression of an inverted home, a place in which convention is suspended in air. And yet, paradoxically, the space feels totally realistic—it sets the tone perfectly for Hunter’s direction.

Yet, the level of absurdity in the Ruhl’s text teeters on the catastrophically indecipherable. There’s definitely a fine line over which I imagine other productions of this play are not successful. The humor is nuanced and major plot points seem predicated on whether or not audience members get the complicated metaphor of the almond-shaped part of the brain, called the Amygdala, which “helps regulate appetite, mood, aggressive and sexual behavior, social behavior, and comprehension of social cues.” 

The play hinges on its ability to toe the line between absurd interrogatives, such as, “Why are you like an almond?” and genuinely human moments, like Tilly’s simple happiness at receiving flowers from her boyfriend Frank. And yet director Matt Hunter ‘18 has managed to toe the line. In a simple word, I got it (after reading up on the Amygdala) and I loved it.

However, where the beginning half of the play was quick paced, and electrically witty, the latter half lagged slightly, and seemed perhaps too wrapped up in the play’s somewhat not-fully-explained almond metaphor. Perhaps Ruhl’s play was too opaque in its regard of audience understanding. (It felt a bit like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which audience members who have no previous exposure to Hamlet are left somewhat dumbstruck.) Essentially, if you didn’t read the pretextual blurb about the almond shaped Amygdala, the play lacked a single, cohesive meaning.

This complication in meaning, however, makes Hunter’s and his cast’s efforts all the more impressive. The audience did get the play, and more than that, nearly every joke landed. This is not an easy task, especially with a production like Melancholy Play, where the absurd can go off like rotten food when not carried well by the cast. Behnke, Webb, Weals, McHugh, and Giberga carried every fight scene, dramatic lull, joke, and (dare I say) musical number with ease, making what could have become overdone acting somehow believable. There’s a word in Urdu for “the transporting suspension of disbelief that occurs from good storytelling,” which encapsulates what the cast of Melancholy Play has achieved. (Oh, but I can’t remember exactly what that word is now.)

  I can say assuredly that leaving the theater, the production having ended and my enjoyment of it a quickly dissipating carbonation in my throat, I felt a bit of melancholy settle in the rocking chair of my heart, like afternoon sunlight rapidly fleeting under the page of the day. (I’m waxing grossly poetic here. Tilly’s disposition had an affect on me, apparently.) But I was happy to let that melancholia sit for as long as it liked rather than exchange it for something less genuine.

And while we are on the subject of melancholy in our real lives (away from play-acting) we here at The Davidsonian are sad to see one of our favorite Davidson actresses, and editors, hasten onto her future and away from campus. To Madam Sophie Rae McHugh, the most melancholy aspect of your performance is that it will be your last at Davidson. We bid you the best in your future endeavors, though you will be sadly, sadly missed. There’s a specific word in English for this feeling, and you know, I do remember it—it’s called “bittersweet.”

Katie Walsh ‘20 is an English Major from Parkland, FL. She can be reached for comment at kmwalsh@davidson.edu.