In ‘Psychosis,’ a soul disintegrates before our eyes

Casey Seymour Kim plays a woman who sees no reason to live in “4:48 Psychosis,’’ at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, R.I. Casey Seymour Kim plays a woman who sees no reason to live in “4:48 Psychosis,’’ at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, R.I. (Peter Goldberg)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / January 26, 2010

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. - “Boy, that was fun,’’ a man deadpanned as the audience rose from its seats to leave the Gamm Theatre after watching - or should that be surviving? - “4:48 Psychosis.’’

His need to find release in humor was understandable, and, to judge by the ripple of laughter that greeted his remark, widely shared. For 72 minutes, we had all been locked inside the agony of another human being - a primal scream of a play that was almost unbearable at times.

But we also knew we had just witnessed a performance of astonishing intensity by Casey Seymour Kim as the unnamed Woman who sees no reason to go on living.

This is full-immersion acting at its finest. Kim so thoroughly inhabits the central character in Sarah Kane’s autobiographical work that she does not seem to be performing at all. (When the actress bounces onstage with a sunny smile to take her bows at play’s end, the effect is dislocating. Who is that?) Thanks to her and to director Tony Estrella, the Gamm’s “4:48 Psychosis’’ may be the most authentic representation of mental illness I’ve ever seen. It makes “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’’ look like “The Sound of Music.’’

Clinical depression goes by many names to its sufferers. Winston Churchill called it the “black dog.’’ William Styron, borrowing a phrase from Milton, titled his depression memoir “Darkness Visible.’’ Sylvia Plath came up with a distinctive metaphor for living with the condition in the title of her autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar.’’

To Sarah Kane, a British playwright who committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 28 and never saw this play staged, it was, simply, “hell.’’ It is revealing of how deeply she lived in that hell that the title of Kane’s final work gives the label “Psychosis’’ to the brief, pre-dawn period “when sanity visits’’ and the Woman enjoys a respite from despair.

It should be said that there are some stretches of bad writing in “4:48 Psychosis,’’ wince-inducing lines like “love keeps me a slave in a cage of tears,’’ when Kane was clearly straining to poeticize her suffering. There are some - very few - moments of mordant wit, as when the Woman confides that: “I have become so depressed by the fact of my mortality that I have decided to commit suicide.’’

The play contains no stage directions, but director Estrella makes good use of his creative license. An especially evocative touch is a backdrop on which appear images (the face of a young child, black snow) that give form to the Woman’s torment. The action is divided between a psychiatric institution and a psychiatrist’s office, and the set by Katryne Hecht is fittingly stark, consisting of a bed and a brown leather chair on a raised platform where the doctor, the only other character onstage, sits.

Virtually the first words the Woman speaks to us are: “I had a night in which everything was revealed to me. How can I speak again?’’ Yet speak she does, in relentless torrents, a stream of broken consciousness that tries to describe the indescribable. It sets up a paradox that steadily pulls us in: Her psyche is disintegrating before our eyes, yet the Woman is still drawn toward self-expression. She doesn’t want to live, but she still needs to speak.

Some of what she says is directed at the impassive doctor (played by Tom Gleadow) who offers mechanical reassurance (“It’s all right,’’ he tells her. “You will get better’’) and medication (which the Woman dismisses as “chemical cures for congenital anguish’’) before eventually committing a crucial gaffe that reveals too much about himself.

Some of it is directed at an apparently vanished lover. Much of it, though, is directed straight at us, the audience, whom the Woman seems to both envy and despise, judging by her alternately beseeching and accusing tone. Estrella shrewdly has the house lights brought up every once in a while, so we have nowhere to hide.

For her part, Kane refuses to let us write off the Woman as a simple case of a chemical imbalance; she makes clear there is an existential component as well. The Woman describes depression as a “beautiful pain that says I exist,’’ and argues that “There’s not a drug on earth that can make life meaningful.’’

For those of us who believe that life is well worth living, this dramatization of what the Woman calls “the rupture of a soul’’ is hard to watch. But because of Kane’s honesty and Kim’s virtuosity, we can’t look away.

Don Aucoin can be reached at


Play by Sarah Kane

Directed by: Tony Estrella. Sets, Katryne Hecht. Lights, Matthew Terry. Sound, Charles Cofone. Costumes, David T. Howard.

At: Sandra-Feinstein Gamm Theatre, Pawtucket, R.I., through Feb. 7. Tickets: $24-$40. 401-723-4266,