The Geography of a Nervous Breakdown
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 10, 2011
Joe Hutcheson's new solo play The Geography of a Nervous Breakdown focuses in on that moment in every adult's life when he or she realizes that all that stuff that felt so right and real and good a few years earlier is actually an illusion: key cherished myths like "my parents are perfect and know everything" or "I'm extraordinary and can do anything I want" fly out the window, to be replaced with the maturity that only comes with experience.
For Hutcheson, as depicted in this autobiographical piece, that moment lasted about two weeks, over the course of a cross-country journey that he made when he left his home in California to begin graduate school in Florida. Aware from the start of the life-changing-ness of this trip, he plans a somewhat circuitous route that enables him to spend time with many of those closest to him before he moves thousands of miles away: from Southern California he drives with his pal, a slacker named Brian, to Reno, where he visits with his mother; then to Sacramento for his 10th high school reunion; to Las Vegas for a drug-filled stay on the Strip with his best friend "lipstick lesbian" Cassidy (with a detour togo hiking in Zion National Park); back to California to see another good friend, a 70-year-old woman named Diane; on to Salt Lake City, where he stays overnight with his father and step-mother, Martha; next, the longest leg of the trip, with Martha, more or less due east, stopping in Laramie, Iowa City, and ending up at St. Louis; and finally, alone, south to Nashville, Atlanta, and then his ultimate destination in Florida.
Hutcheson portrays himself and all of his various traveling companions, as well as some others that he encounters along the way. All are depicted with simplicity and telling detail—he never changes costume (he's clad throughout in a brown polo shirt and jeans), just shifts his posture and his voice to conjure each of these characters. The story and the people in it are shared with warmth and compassion. Some of the more memorable figures among those we meet include his mother, who is rendered vividly though briefly in a conversation about her doubts about the existence of God; a scary Howard Johnson's employee at Laramie, who is visibly annoyed when Martha asks him where the Matthew Shepard Memorial is located; and an over-the-hill drag queen at a club in Nashville, lip-synching to a disco rendition of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."
As for the story itself—it's an off-kilter travelogue in which the traveler is having what he thinks is a nervous breakdown. The panic sets in as soon as he gets in the car, and doesn't particularly let up until he realizes what he's learned during the trip at its end. There are a couple of moments of respite, including one in Vegas when he says that he was so medicated that feeling panic would have been impossible, and, sweetly, one where his contemplation of a ladybug helps set him on a course toward finding himself. In a way the play conjures the spirit of MGM's The Wizard of Oz, with its protagonist encountering a variety of bizarre companions while learning something fundamental and ineffable. The anecdotes are funny and touching and the entire adventure feels completely authentic. And overall the writing is vivid and visceral—for example, his digression about how, as a kid, he believed that when you died you became an angel because he'd seen it in so many cartoons is delightful and spot-on.
I was struck by Hutcheson's choice to never tell us about the events that preceded his journey. Obviously all of this anxiety came from someplace, but the antecedents to The Geography of a Nervous Breakdown are not included here. I think this tones down the dramatic arc a bit—since we don't know exactly what's at stake for Joe in the play, we are at a bit of a remove from what unfolds. But on the other hand, by keeping the personal details out of the show, Hutcheson allows us to substitute our own instead.
This is the second solo piece of Hutcheson's that I've seen, and I continue to be mightily impressed by his skill as both an actor and a writer. Kudos, too, to Cheryl King, who has directed the piece seamlessly and also produced it as part of the fourth annual Left Out Festival. This is a great venue for seeing new gay-themed work (which this piece is only incidentally, as Hutcheson happens to be gay and that informs the piece in a few scenes), and I'm pleased that I got a look at this one.