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In retrospect, I probably should have chosen something else to do over Father’s Day weekend, like watch the few precious videotapes of my beloved father, gone since July 1999. It probably wasn’t smart for the daughter of a man who spent a lot of time locked up in psych wards in the ’60s to attend a play about the children of a man locked up in a psych ward in the ’60s.
Local playwright Daniel Mont describes The Big Green Door—running at Signal 66 to June 30—as “not autobiographical, but personal,” saying that it draws on his experiences and those of people he knows. His new drama focuses on the family of Arthur, who is institutionalized for treatment of depression at “the best facility in the state”—a horrifying place for his children, 9-year-old Jeff and 5-year-old Amy. As adults, Jeff and Amy recall their visits to the ward with “the big green door,” with its tiny wire-crisscrossed window and its deafening buzzer. And they remember different aspects of the enigmatic man who became lost to them when they were too young to understand his illness: Amy focuses on the dad she knew when he was well, Jeff on the broken man with the eerie laugh who wouldn’t get out of bed.
“To me, it is a play about the family, not about the illness,” says the show’s director, Jeffrey Ridlington.
The script rings disturbingly true: the discomfort of visiting a locked-up building full of strangers who stare, the tendency of memory to isolate the best and worst moments from a late parent’s life, a child’s blame of one parent for the other’s misery. If it omits the potential good times—I spent many enriching afternoons playing table tennis with smack addicts and schizophrenics—The Big Green Door nails the ugliest moments of institutionalization, including a scene in which we see Arthur going through an electroconvulsive-therapy treatment. Indeed, one of the reasons Mont set his play in the ’60s, he says, “was because of shock therapy.” The controversial treatment often alleviated the symptoms of severe depression but also left the patient with memory loss, sometimes permanent. “It’s still used,” says Mont, “but much more judiciously and not so intensely.”
Ridlington and Mont met last summer, when both were working on Washington Shakespeare Company’s In the Summer House: Ridlington as assistant stage manager, Mont as an actor. “We were both on a break,” Ridlington recalls, “and he got to talking about his script, and I got to talking about my desire to direct.” The two took the play to Classika Theatre, an area proving ground for emotionally wrenching stagecraft; readings at Classika’s studio led to script revisions in which, says Ridlington, “Dan developed a lot of the material showing the family together and many of the happy memories when Arthur was well.”
The play’s happy memories aside, I’m still rather morose when Mont calls to talk the Sunday after I’ve seen it. When asked, “Did you plan this for Father’s Day?” he laughs in surprise: “I hadn’t even noticed it until you mentioned it.” —Pamela Murray Winters