“Sometimes I think she doesn’t have a clue, the way she has this annoying habit of jumping on some offhand remark” and I would say that many a patient have had the same thought as Barnard does of his therapist, Evangeline Ryder, and I did with Dr. Michaels idea of song, but it is in the details where Good for Otto finds its salvation. Treatment, giving or receiving, is no fairy tale; there are no three bears, seven dwarves, or a gingerbread house in the woods, only wolves and monsters. And there are no happy ending for some, but giving care, no matter the cost, is a worthy profession, and in many ways, Rabe gives some honor and warm grace to these two who try. They are not perfect, much like this play, but they are human, and all humans are in need some days of care and a pat on the back, and maybe a good stiff drink at the end of the day. I know I do, sometimes. So raise your glass to congratulate the company of Good for Otto, they deserve our salute and our applause for a job well done.
This is a tale for and about therapists and the brave souls that want and attempt to repair themselves through treatment. It’s about the stories of pain and the hurdles to happiness that seem un-jumpable sometimes. And about the ones that make it through and the others that sadly, don’t quite get there. In my day life, my real job, I am a psychotherapist, and as I took my seat at The New Group‘s production of Good for Otto, I had no idea that playwright David Rabe (Hurleyburly), inspired by the book “Undoing Depression” by Richard O’Conner, was giving me the gift of a bridge, one that connects my theatrejunkie’d self to my day job. And what a lovely piece of writing this gift is, especially in the way that the story is directed with an easy but exacting eye for engagement by Scott Elliot (TNG’s Downtown Race Riot). Rabe has crafted a finely sculptured piece that is filled with thoughtful and authentic interpersonal engagements and real and relatable people to grapple with the dilemmas that inflict patients and their therapists alike, as both struggle to do good work from one day to the next.
The “words, words, words” that are the earth and clay of this piece of theatre, reminiscent of the totally engaging Tiny Beautiful Things, are colored and molded by trauma and pain, grief and loneliness, handed gently over to the two psychotherapists that exist at the heart of the Northwood Mental Health Center in rural Connecticut. Beautifully enacted by the gifted actors, Ed Harris (Buried Child, Fool for Love) as Dr. Michaels, and Amy Madigan (Broadway’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Buried Child), as Evangeline Ryder, they take these precious thoughts and memories that are cautiously shared during tightly crafted therapy sessions, and hold them tight with the hope that these pieces can be molded into something useful in treatment. Both actors create caregivers who really are invested and engaged, but not saints. They have their own demons to deal with as the two inhabit a complex terrain of compassion, empathy, and confusion that exist in the heart and soul of anyone who does this kind of work. They aren’t always perfect, they aren’t always in tune with their patients, they can be frustrating and frustrated, and they aren’t always connected, but they both give off the very real sense of trying their hardest to be the ‘good enough’ therapist, which is all one can hope for, in an environment that isn’t always conducive to fostering the best of all possible care.
Surrounding them on the simple but pure and open set, designed with a solid eye of understanding by Derek McLane (TNG’s Jerry Springer-The Opera), with basic but telling costumes by Jeff Mahshie (Broadway’s She Loves Me), and solid lighting by Jeff Croiter (TNG’s The Whirligig), the rest of the cast of professionals portray the seekers of assistance, one after the other, weaving their stories with these two treatment-givers. Some of their voices and stories come to Dr. Michaels in something like a dream or in nagging thoughts brought on by the dawning of a new day, playing and tugging at him, demanding help with their “too many boxes” or with the “storms in my head” pleas. One in particular comes out from his own past, a ghost or a traumatic seed lodged in the soil of the doctor’s mind, ready to poke and push when his own questioning surfaces. This black clad woman who sprouts up out of the dark clay, is Dr. Michaels’ dead mother, portrayed by the too young Charlotte Hope (Almeida’s Albion), and she will not be silenced or sidelined. Why this character is in the form of such a young and slightly combative woman is disconcerting and unclear. There is some discussion concerning photos and how people like to visualize others in their own mind’s eye: Evangeline Ryder describes a passage from a book to a patient about “how certain photographs pierce us. But along the way he starts writing about his mother who has just died and who he lived with for the last twenty six years. He writes that she is irreplaceable. Not indispensable, but irreplaceable. He’s been going through all the photographs he has of her, looking for one that will pierce him, and the one he finally settles on is of his mother when she was five years old.” but nothing in that explanation really made that logic stick. Why does Dr. Michaels see his own mother in this way? It doesn’t make sense, nor does it help us see this woman as the mother of this therapist, causing a disconnect from the emotionality it is meant to ignite. The big picture that should envelope Good for Otto is never quite clear or in focus.
Hope’s portrayal borders on the annoying, especially when she starts to get wound up in Dr. Michaels’ treatment of his most difficult patient, the magnificent young Rileigh McDonald (Broadway’s Matilda) as the stormy young Frannie, desperate for help from the self-harm she inflicts, with Rhea Perlman (Broadway’s Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, “Cheers“) following close behind her, exhausted, anxious, and tormented, as the struggling foster-mother, Nora. The shared past of this particular mother and son rains turmoil down on the mind of the doctor/son and on us, playing havoc with our sense of care and his attempts to save the young girl from herself. It’s obvious that his mother and her traumatic history has created not so much a wrath, but a deep savior complex inside Dr. Michaels, forging a sometimes melodramatic need to be of use and save these lost souls that come to him for help. If he had only been able to save his own mother…. Sounds like a stereotypical approach to what makes a therapist tick, and I’m not denying it in theory, as I think a person’s past does help create the motivation to enter into the caring professions of nurse, doctor, therapist, and social worker, but it’s also a generalization. Every therapist has a past and a history, as we all do, and hopefully, each one attempts to take good care of themselves, seeking treatment and support within their own community. Much like Dr. Michaels and Evangeline Ryder, who find colleague support with one another over a chat and a drink at the end of a long day. Because, to be frank, they both seem to have quite the patient load, and they are just two humans doing their best.
Their patients and the actors who portray them, all have their moment in the stormy glorious spotlight, sharing their discomforts, anxiety, depression and rage against themselves and the world they inhabit with brilliant ease and attunement . For this practitioner, the stories seem beautifully authentic and as real as can be, with details and emotions that couldn’t be shaken away with ease. I’ll let their stories speak for themselves, but the cast gobbles them up with relish. Sitting near by, waiting for their session to begin are a number of different diagnoses: the Tony winning marvel, F. Murray Abraham (West End’s The Mentor) is Barnard, an older man who has lost the desire to get out of bed in the morning, pushed to seek counseling by his wife Teresa, played solidly by Laura Esterman (the original cast member of Broadway’s Marvin’s Room). Maulik Pancholy (Broadway’s It’s Only a Play) is the achingly lost and delusional Alex, peeking his head out from the closet, nervous and scared. The compelling Kenny Mellman, of “Kiki and Herb” fame, is Jerome, an obsessive compulsive hoarder brought to the center by his concerned mother, also strongly played by Esterman. Kate Buddeke (Broadway’s Superior Donuts) plays a worn-out mother, Jane, in anguish over the tragedy that surrounds her son, Jimmy, played with empathetic curiosity and some good strumming by Michael Rabe (‘Ask for Jane‘), and finally, and most lovingly, there is Mark Linn-Baker (Broadway’s On the Twentieth Century) as Timothy, the socially awkward man with few boundaries and an intense love for Otto, who’s about to have a delicate and anxiety-producing surgery. There’s a lot here to dig around in and to find meaning in the complex relationships in and out of the clinic, but, as Evangeline Ryder would say, this is all fascinating but “…to be continued“.
In the background, surrounding these caregivers and their patients are two workers that fit almost too neatly into the polar opposite positions within the health care system that us therapists sometimes have to deal with. There is Denise, the organized and dutiful office manager of the Mental Health Center, played stoically by Lily Gladstone (OSF’s Off the Rails) having the true-to-life thankless job of trying to keep the organization afloat. At the other end of the spectrum, played by the solid Nancy Giles (PH’s Police Boys) is Marcy, an insurance company case manager who has a frustratingly deadend answer for everything without ever just saying the word, “No“, which is really what she is constantly saying. These two help paint the picture that mental health care in America is basically all screwed-up, and even with all the empathy and care in the world coming from these psychotherapists, some of the patients will find the help they need, but others will not. They will be chewed up and spit out, locked away or just forgotten about because of guidelines and limitations from the uncaring bad-guy Insurance Companies. But we all know this.
So what’s a caretaker gonna do, you may ask? Dr. Michael has a vision, and a solution, at least for his troubled and anxious soul, something he imagines would help all of them, his patients and himself, that they should all get together, and, well, sing. That’s right, that’s what I just said, sing. “The fantasy is that I like to imagine all my patients doing something similar sometimes–all singing together–I don’t know where they are–some place–and they’re singing and it’s very, very peaceful.” It’s a lovely idea, I guess, ‘heart-warming’ but I have to admit that this added level of fantasy just struck me as odd, and difficult to embrace in its entirety. It’s meant, I guess, to lighten everyone’s load, and the tunes are old-school and charming, with sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (Broadway’s Sweat, The Price), but ultimately, all I can say is “Talk about being clueless.” Mental health issues are far more complicated and difficult, impossible to just wrap up nicely as the play comes to a close. Many have tried, and some, when the focus is usually on one character’s traumatic memory, have succeeded, but with so many patients to try to take care of that even in the three-hour running time of Good for Otto, as in real life, some will not be saved. Even with a sweet old song sung in unison.