Plays should never start in the shrink’s office. There’s no better way to take the audience out of a character’s mind than to put her in a setting in which she’s expected to explain out loud what’s going on inside. The therapy session is a shortcut, like a flashback in a movie or the “previously on” preface to a television show, but for a character’s waking dreams and nightmares.
So it seems like Animal starts off on the wrong foot when it more or less opens in the office of a psychiatrist. Right away, it becomes clear that a whole lot of the production will take the form of one-on-one psychotherapy. Rachel (Kate Eastwood Norris) isn’t exactly buying what her therapist Stephen (Joel David Santner) is selling. She lashes out against his infuriatingly cool cognitive analysis, even as she lets slip some of the anxieties and preoccupations that brought her there. Why should Rachel (and her audience) live out her problems, when she can just talk them out in the doctor’s office?
This animal is more cunning than that, though. A premiere by British playwright Clare Lizzimore, Animal is haunting, humanizing, and satisfying, building up to a climactic twist that will resolve a central question that audience members may not have realized they had—while opening up other questions that more of us should be asking.
There isn’t much more to Animal than its performances, under Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s minimal but unlabored direction. The set (designed by Rachel Hauck) consists of nothing more than chairs on a slightly raised stage, but it’s used to the right effect. Purple underbody lighting, like ground effects for the theater, indicate when something “off” is happening. That and the slight but sinister register of a heavy bass sound is just enough to make a viewer second-guess what she’s seeing. Subtlety is critical, since it’s left to the audience to untangle what is and isn’t happening inside the protagonist’s head—right up until the end.
In the office with her therapist, Rachel registers a sense of dissatisfaction, a feeling that something is off in her life. She is high-strung in an appealing way, the kind of person who makes great company as a bar-mate, perhaps less so as a co-worker. For the most part, Rachel shares a light dynamic with the people around her (again, thanks to sturdy scripting) even as she’s working through some unstated source of cosmic frustration. She asks her therapist about her mental health. “What am I scoring so far?” she asks. “Six,” he tells her. “What’s crazy?” “Twenty-seven.”
Even though her doctor and her supportive but frustrated husband, Tom (Cody Nickell), reassure her that she will be fine, Rachel reveals that things are most definitely not OK. When a man named Dan (played by Michael Kevin Darnall) shows up in odd places to seduce Rachel, he seems unreal right off the bat, like a sexy apparition—a fuckboy-next-door sprung forth fully formed out of Rachel’s libido. It’s only when therapist Stephen transforms into a little girl (Anaïs Killian) that the audience realizes that the scenes go two ways. There’s what Rachel thinks she’s seeing—the hunky fling, the precious girl, her mother-in-law—and what the people around her are seeing, which is a woman struggling to keep her grip through a crisis she doesn’t fully grasp.
Animal raises too many questions about human nature, about the very mammalian condition of loving and caring for another being—or not feeling something that we are told is instinct—to provide too much closure for the audience, even if it seems like there may be a way out for Rachel. Without giving too much away, it should be said: Her diagnosis is an order of magnitude worse than the version of the disorder suffered by most women. Lizzimore didn’t need to go to the extreme to make her point.
“Have you ever seen an animal bewildered?” Rachel asks. In an almost faultless performance, Norris upends the aspirational refrain: Can women really have it all? In Animal, the question is darker, and the answer, when it arrives, may be a cold comfort.
1501 14th St. NW. $20–$45. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.