Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues)
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
April 8, 2006
Michael Mack’s Hearing Voices is making its New York debut, after touring in dozens of locations around the United States. Perhaps what is most unusual about this production at the Michael Corzine Studio (at Times Square Arts Center) is that it also marks one of the play's few showings in a theatrical venue. Mack’s one-man show, which deals with his mother’s lifelong battle with schizophrenia, has been seen in variety of locations: he has performed for boards of mental health professionals at hospitals, on National Public Radio, for universities and conferences, even in a few churches.
The first thing that is likely to strike an audience member is the authenticity of this piece. It is hard not to be moved by the artist’s generosity and candor in performing some of the darkest moments of his and his mother’s lives. He approaches his past with a writer’s skill, with a strange attentiveness and analytical interest even in the midst of emotional trauma. He trudges through the earliest memories he has of his mother, in her first psychotic episodes, all the way to the end of her life.
Michael Mack describes this piece, which he has been working on for over ten years, as a continual work in progress. One gets the sense that as a piece of writing, the piece may very well be done. It is full of rich images and difficult memories. It is sometimes excruciating in its excavations. We get flashes of his mother cutting off her hair; his mother bare-breasted; his mother wondering aloud if she’s the Virgin Mary; his mother serving his sister a bowl of excrement. As he gets around to comparing schizophrenics to saints, he conjures the image of his devout Catholic mom in her later years, filthy, homeless and toothless. He calls her a martyr. He begins to preach, as if he were a priest, the Gospel according to his mother, “Saint Annie.” It gets especially profound when he asks the audience pointedly, “If you can’t imagine St. Annie, imagine your mother.”
As a piece of theatre, however, the work seems as though it may still be in its early stages. What Hearing Voices seems to lack most is direction. Director Daniel Gidron has a few exceptionally good stage moments here, especially those that take place in total darkness. On the whole, though, the piece drags. It has little momentum and feels spread thin by the end of the 90 minutes; not because the material isn’t compelling, but because not enough changes onstage.
The piece is highly literary and, at times it tends to feel more like a reading than a play. To its own detriment, it doesn’t make use of many basic theatrical devices. There is almost no sound design, no lights, a static set, and minimal attention to costumes. The piece seems especially to be lacking in character development. A wide and potentially rich range of characters make fleeting appearances, including Mack’s mother Annie, his father, a priest, a doctor/expert, Frank Sinatra, and various siblings. But the only really convincing character, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Mack himself. The rest seem only suggestions which are all too briefly embodied, and too commented upon, by Mack.
With the great variety of Mack’s menagerie of personalities, it is sometimes glaring where character potential goes untapped. For instance, Mack’s hair is unusually long and he possesses a quite slight physique. However, no attempt is made to use these natural assets to better differentiate between his characters, especially between those of his mother and himself. Since when he portrays himself his hair is pulled back, why not change or loosen it when embodying his mother? In addition, all the costume adjustments seem incidental and haphazard, evoking sentiments and style more than distinct characters. A doctor’s coat and a Sinatra-style fedora are both used at various points, but the text tends to interrupt itself before a character fully materializes. And the voices of the individual characters are not distinct enough from the author's. The play ends up suffering from too much of the material seeming too much the same.
It is not surprising that Mack has garnered interest and praise from groups as wide-ranging and prestigious as National Public Radio and the Harvard Medical School. The subject he works with is profound and arouses curiosity and empathy. The language and style range from poetic and stylized, to quick and brutal. As a piece of writing, one can imagine this work would be a gratifying read. But Mack seems to have the impetus to also perform the piece, and, considering the subject matter, the possibilities for it onstage are really quite strong. However, for the play to be fully realized, it would most likely benefit from a reconsideration of the material from a more theatrical, and less literary, point of view.