Review: Clinically Undepressed by Bastrop Opera House
by Michael Meigs
In our busy and often afflicted lives, perhaps that’s what we yearn for, even more than happiness. While attending Will Holcomb’s third staging of his play Clinically Undepressed I heard in my mind Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Holcomb’s premise in writing the piece was simple: imagine a child incapable of anger. What effect would that child have upon the world, and what would the world do to him? What would that serenity do?
Though there’s not a word about religion in this winsome little story about a boy named Cole Black, born smiling into the world, it can easily be understood as a Christian parable. The boy’s parents are unhappy and estranged; their next-door neighbor Millard Anderson, a foul-tempered old Vietnam vet with an evil past, threatens boys who step on his lawn; schoolmate Jimmy Masters bullies Cole in school; Jimmy’s dad is a pugnacious drunk whose wife has abandoned them.
That’s a group that might have been assembled out of the laments sung on a country music station. More to the point, they’re individuals suffering from the basic ills of contemporary society: people who need acceptance, understanding and love to rediscover the promise of life, so as not to give in to violence or despair.
The narrator who brings us into the story is Danne Absher as the angry next-door neighbor Millard. When the lights go down he appears before the audience in a spotlight, where he addresses us directly and without rancor. He promises us we’ll be witnessing a remarkable story. Absher ascends the steps to that perilously high stage at the Bastrop Opera House, where he’ll join some of the scenes, comment on others, and generally serve as our master of ceremonies. He has his own "front porch" at stage left but frequently ghosts away into the wings.
Holcomb, both playwright and director, manages to fit the story onto that odd high stage, more appropriate for a Texas dance band. The Bastrop Opera House techs help expand the view by using back projections to fill out stage left with background images, and the director often sends family characters into a one-foot-deep "pantry" at stage right for conferences as asides. Because of the awkward viewing angle, that multipurpose kitchen table sometimes blocks sightlines from the front rows. There's a clever scene shift in the second act that promptly transforms the family home into a burger bar.
Judy Vire and Steve Haight as the Blacks are ripe for divorce, but she discovers that she’s pregnant. Her husband Blake pauses for mental calculations: “Is it mine?” Narrator Millard has warned us already that Blake, a local prosecutor, is a sour character. We get a scene at the maternity clinic where three men are awaiting deliveries. Blake, the third, is busy with paperwork from the office. Melissa Weltner as the nurse appears to advise him that the newborn son is healthy but needs some neurological tests. There’s something strange about him.
And we learn that this cheery little infant grows up to be a mild and ever optimistic child with a weird handicap: he’s incapable of feeling anger. At first the son's an invisible presence: an unheard cry at birth, an unglimpsed figure in a bassinet as his father Blake the attorney awkwardly interacts with the baby.
Young Cole Black eventually appears in the person of Deklan Finley. Playwright and cast take Cole through episode after episode where this unusual disability becomes an advantage, a mystic quality not unlike the mythic King’s Touch. Everyone he encounters responds to his uncanny spiritual goodness; every situation in which he engages turns out first for the better and then for the best.
The story isn’t complicated, but it’s nicely carpentered together. The characters are not deep or eloquent but they do change. Cole’s innocence and goodness bring hope to all. A couple of scenes are particularly effective because of clever plot twists. The parable is smoothly delivered, and at the end of the two acts the cast and playwright receive a well deserved standing ovation from the home crowd.
The play could have been clunky and a bit wooden if it hadn’t been for Deklan Finley as the clinically undepressed Cole Black. Engaged, audible and radiating interest in others, Finley delivers a performance that’s clear and pure as water flowing in a mountain stream. His art is that of not showing the art as he makes us believe in apparent impossibility.
Cole doesn’t just turn the other cheek; he befriends his assailant. He happily accepts being fired for being too friendly to the customers at the burger stand; he dispenses wisdom to his stressed employer. By taking an interest that we perceive as vibrant and genuine, he draws crabbed Millard out of the shell of decades of suffering. The plot arc is nicely concluded with the final scene, which takes place not on the elevated stage but right there on the floor with the audience, where Cole surprises us and our narrator plays an unexpected key role.
Even Jesus got angry; Cole Black does not. But in Holcomb’s story Cole’s Christ-like temperament inevitably leads to desired miracles. Despite that stacked deck Deklan Finley’s performance has concealed depth. He gives us a Cole Black who resembles Dostoyevski’s serene innocents Prince Myshkin and Alyosha Karamasov but doesn’t face the intractability of their surroundings.
The fact is, miracles such as those shown in Clinically Undepressed are conceivable and sometimes can occur in our own everyday lives.
That fact gives us hope.
August 10 - August 25, 2018
711 Spring Street
Bastrop, TX, 78602
August 10, 11, 17, 18, 24, 25, 2018 at 7:30 pm
August 12 at 2:30 pm
Tickets $8 - $15 plus service fee. Click HERE to purchase.