Director Jane Jennings holds up a diagram of the human brain which highlights the amygdala, a small almond shaped organ that controls our mood and emotion. This is her introduction to "Melancholy Play," by Sarah Ruhl, now running at Old Academy Players.
But early on, this amygdala is nowhere to be found. Heroine Tilly (Samantha Simpson) goes to see a psychiatrist, Lorenzo (Josh Keiter), because her bank employer thinks she is too melancholy. He immediately falls in love with her, but so does everybody else.
Tilly's melancholy also attracts the love interests of Frank (Matthew Thompson), her tailor, Frances (Laura Watson), her hairdresser and Joan (Maura McInerney), a nurse and Frances' lover. But when Tilly become ecstatically happy in the second act, they all collapse into deep melancholia.
All comes to a boil when the four would-be lovers, jilted by Tilly's "recovery," fight over a vial of Tilly's tears. Frances wins possession, drinks the tears and then - as you probably guessed - is metamorphosed into an almond!
Simpson is a wonderful presence as Tilly. Though everyone falls in love with her, she is not seductive. With her modest, cottony dress and child-like shoes, she is more like Lewis Carroll's Alice. She is always engrossed in the moment, whether in wonder of her own melancholia or gaily playing "duck, duck, goose."
Keiter shines as Lorenzo, a lovably clownish figure with his claim to knowledge. The psychiatric concept of "transference" becomes a running gag. You never know who will be talking or listening as director Jennings keeps shifting the chairs and sofa with the changing relations.
In this play surprise events replace conventional storytelling. Out of nowhere, Tilly rides her bike across the stage. A letter pops under the door warning all melancholics to stay inside or risk being turned into almonds.
Tilly touches everyone she meets, and they too begin to engross themselves in what is extraordinary about the moment. And out of all the uncontrolled emotion, a larger love triangle emerges in which the yearning for love leads equally to melancholy and happiness.
Ten years after its premiere in 2002, Ruhl transformed her play into a sort of musical. Todd Almond (yes, that is his name) composed the score. Characters inexplicably burst into song. Julian (Richard Maurer) plays a mournful cello all night, but the lovers only notice him at the end. Does his wordless melancholia have the power to restore Frances to human form?
Ruhl has become a darling of contemporary avant-garde American theater, where in her other plays dogs and fish sometimes cavort and talk. "Melancholy" is an affectionate farce-fable about human relations. It tries to make sense of senselessness by reveling in a child-like wonder that rejects both rational explanation and despair.
Old Academy Players is located at 3544 Indian Queen Lane in East Falls. "Melancholy Play" will run through Jan 29. Tickets available at 215-843-1109.
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