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'Wallpaper' examines postpartum breakdown

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Fine acting, stage sets make internal struggle more potent


COURTESY: OWEN CAREY/COHO - Grace Carter plays the main role, Charlotte, in Yellow Wallpaper, a highlight of Fertile Ground Festival.Grace Carter’s adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a highlight of the Fertile Ground Festival of New Works at CoHo Theater, is a dark and, at times, slow depiction of postpartum depression. Not exactly date-night stuff, but the audience at last Saturday’s performance was enthusiastic about this well-acted, visually coherent piece.

The story begins charmingly enough, with a chance encounter between doctor-suitor John and Charlotte. He is smitten with her independence and education.

Their first months of courtship play out on a logarithmic scale, with flirtation, waltzing and babymaking compressed into a few minutes. The real meat of the action begins, as it were, when Charlotte is confined to a bedroom in an old manor house to cure her depression. Her husband’s sister Jenny, played by the effervescent Christy Bigelow, takes care of the baby (offstage) and, at times, Charlotte.

In the original 1890 early feminist story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the husband is referred to as “a physician of high standing.” On stage he is a bit of a bait-and-switcher, all lovey-dovey romantic when he meets Charlotte, this bookish suffragette with the perfect poise.

Within minutes he blurts out a marriage proposal. Once they’re married with a newborn and she’s suffering from postpartum depression, he treats her according to the latest medical theory. That is — according to Gilman’s text — he believes “there is really nothing the matter with [her] but temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency ...”

The yellow wallpaper in question lines the bedroom where she is trapped. The set consists of a bed, a long carpet and a back wall covered in corrugated paper on which images of the dreaded yellow wallpaper are projected. In the story, as she loses her mind, the patterns begin to move independently, although she is never sure what she is seeing. On stage, they move because they are video projections.

In the story, she sees a woman in the pattern. On stage, actor Diana Schultz has the role of the Woman. She is a doppelganger for Charlotte, who is portrayed by Grace Carter. The Woman appears more and more frequently as the play goes on, becoming one of the cast, and the husband recedes.

Jenny’s loyalties are split between the patient and the doctor — her new friend and her brother. What little action there is includes a scene eating illicit chocolate, which John has banned.

Bigelow has acted in the comedy TV sketch series “Portlandia,” according to the program. This made for a bit of a giggle when the ladies used the word “cacao.”

The only other real laugh is when her loving but patronizing husband says he’ll read her some poetry by Browning. “Elizabeth?” she asks excitedly. “Robert,” he replies. You should see her face fall.

Carter is excellent playing a woman who gets gradually crazier while also seeming more sane. As the video wallpaper dances and she chases the Woman around the stage, she becomes more and more defiant to her strict Victorian husband, and more deserving of sympathy.

There are moments of moving intensity, such as when Jenny wordlessly washes Charlotte’s hair in an enamel bowl on the floor. The play’s script leaves much unsaid, inviting you to imagine her pain, as the wallpaper invites imaginative pattern making.

COURTESY: OWEN CAREY/COHO - The Yellow Wallpaper depics Charlotte (Grace Carter) as a woman going crazy, yet more sane while locked in a room..Charlotte and the Woman eventually dance a duet around the bedroom, on two legs and on all fours — clearly they had Zumba in the 1890s. And where did CoHo Productions find two actresses with no tattoos? These are things to ponder during the slow periods.

The narrator in the written text uses more exclamation points than a teacher’s email, so translating that to the stage is challenging. The play itself, however, seems to end on a giant exclamation mark, as the physical action reaches a frenzy and the set itself comes into play. Given all the repression and torpor the audience witnesses during the 90 minutes, the ending is a refreshing contrast.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” stages at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 6 at CoHo Theater, 2257 N.W. Raleigh St. (www.cohoproductions.org).