theater

"Garden" keeps its promises

1964 novel about schizophrenia stunningly staged

By John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic

 

 

Golden - "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden," perhaps the most significant undertaking in the 15-year history of the Miners Alley Playhouse, may also be its most significant accomplishment.

This is the world premiere stage presentation of Evergreen author Joanne Greenberg's 1964 semi-autobiographical novel. Walter L. Newton's smart and complex new adaptation recounts her long recovery from schizophrenia without drugs or shock treatment.

Director Rick Bernstein's compelling and mostly satisfying staging displays the full spectrum of characteristics of the human psyche. Its occasional frailties and insecurities reveal themselves but eventually become engulfed and forgotten by the recuperative power of the human spirit on display.

If there were an award for best leading actress/lighting designer, the spotlight would be shining on young Karalyn Pytel, a remarkable leading lady of stage and strobes.


 

Pytel delivers a revelatory and uncompromising performance as 16-year-old Deborah Klein. And her precise and evocative light design, most effectively her smartly placed footlights, is as illuminating. (Set designer John Van Lennep, sound man El Armstrong, costumer Erin Leonard and makeup artist Angela Sabott add sophisticated technical expertise as well).

Pytel's performance is free of cliché, sentimentality and, thankfully, histrionics. She never shies from Deborah's inherent intellect, which keeps her grounded and present in her interactions with her beloved therapist Anna Fried (based on Greenberg's revolutionary physiotherapist Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann). Even though Pytel squirms and burns lit cigarettes into her arms only 10 feet from her audience, she is so ensconced in her task, she seems miles away.

All this would be meaningless if the actor playing Fried were not her equal, and Paige L. Larson is nothing short of astounding in her understated, no-nonsense portrayal. Larson brings to compassionate light a tireless woman who threatened the establishment by fighting Deborah's disease slowly, at its source, rather than masking or muting it with drugs.

Greenberg's schizophrenia was not the typical case marked by the gradual loss of contact with her environment. Growing up concurrently spoiled by her mother's family and resented by her abusive and infantile father, Greenberg simply never accepted the reality presented to her from birth. By age 9, she was deeply disturbed and by 16, she had lost herself in the Kingdom of Yr - a scary, self-created world populated by monsters who dictated her thoughts, commanded her actions and fought her every effort to re-emerge.

While the support performances vary, Dale Tagtmeyer expertly portrays her father as profoundly insecure and volatile. Jacob's deep animosity against his daughter was likely the primary engine for her arrested development, and Anterrabae, the chief goblin of Yr (well-snarled by Clyde Sacks), is made an overtly mirrored manifestation of her papa.

Still, nothing in Newton's adaptation allows for easy answers or blanket condemnations. His work is a profound argument for a humanistic approach to treating psychosis. Which is not to say it is perfect. Scenes are at times blinkingly brief, which works fine for a film but not on stage, where so many blackouts and set changes kill momentum.

And Newton chooses always to place Deborah's demons on stage with her, when the audience's sympathy is already hers for the taking. It would be more interesting and would have helped us gain more of an understanding into her conflicted parents if occasionally we were allowed to see Deborah through their eyes, without these strange creatures seething through her every scene.

Newton builds things to a near-perfect ending, but like many writers, he didn't trust himself to end there. Instead he ill-advisedly tacks on a sermonizing epilogue. By then, every necessary argument has been made effectively.

Theater critic John Moore can be reached at 303-820-1056 or jmoore@denverpost.com .

"I Never Promised You a Rose Garden"

*** MENTAL-HEALTH DRAMA|Presented by Miners Alley Playhouse|Written by Walter Newton from the novel by Joanne Greenberg|Directed by Rick Bernstein|Starring Karalyn Pytel and Paige L. Larson|1224 Washington St., Golden|THROUGH NOV. 13|7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays|

2 hours, 20 minutes|$15-$17|303-935-3044