by Loren Noveck · August 17, 2014
Boy meets girl, boy romances girl, boy loses girl—oldest story in the book. And when boy (Jamie) and girl (Steph) meet in a psychiatrist’s waiting room (she’s depressive, he’s manic; as Steph says, “a pair so perfect they named a disease after us”), it’s easy to make assumptions about the winsome romantic-comedy path—damaged people learning to heal together—that Chemistry might follow. But you’d be wrong: Jacob Marx Rice’s play is about brain biochemistry more than romantic chemistry: comedy, yes, but dark, honest, and unsparing in its depiction of mental illness, and always conscious that love by itself isn’t enough to make damaged people whole. Under Anna Strasser’s direction, it’s blackly, ruefully funny without making light of its characters’ very real pain.
Steph has battled depression her entire life; we learn right away that she first tried to kill herself at eleven (beating “records” earlier set by her mother—fourteen—and sister—twelve). She’s had ups and downs, but even with the best care and the best antidepressants, she’d rather die than live. Jamie is a high flyer—dreaming of becoming Secretary of State, he got himself out of a small, poor town on a college scholarship and now works as a congressional policy analyst. Manic energy fuels him, until it pushes him all the way to psychosis; he is hospitalized after a gruesome incident of self-injury. Steph becomes first his guide through the strange new world of mental-health pharmacology, and then his partner. But even when their relationship is strongest, they can’t see eye to eye about how to live with, or live through, their respective diseases.
For Steph, depression is constant, a grinding, gnawing, inescapable enemy who can’t be defeated—at best, using medication, she can push it away just enough to not stare her in the eye every second of every day; just enough to get out of bed and go to work and fight against crippling feelings of shame and unworthiness and emptiness. She’s afraid to be loved and afraid to love; she doesn’t want anyone else to take on the burden of her despair. But Jamie has the opposite relationship to his malfunctioning neurotransmitters: his mania is what’s always made him special, given him strength; on medication, he can’t function and sees no hope of regaining the life he’s fought so hard for.
Lauren LaRocca and Jonathan Hopkins give subtle performances; through nuanced shifts in tone and affect, we learn to see the difference between their more and less balanced selves. Each is perhaps better individually, portraying the shades within their characters, than they are when acting together; their connection feels less powerful than their separate stories. Still, Rice has created two strong, complex, articulate characters, and the play is deeply affecting.
No one could have predicted how topical this piece would be this particular week, with the fight against depression and despair the subject on every news feed after the death of Robin Williams. It’s a terrific piece of theater under any circumstances, but especially moving right now.