Happy Place takes on mental illness with a contemporary spin on the Toronto stage
This is one of those plays that I think everyone has to see at least once. Or preferably twice, so as to really hear all the nuances in playwright and performer Pamela Mala Sinha’s snappy, fast-paced writing. The tragically comedic Happy Place, from Soulpepper Theatre, takes a decidedly more contemporary, heart-felt look at mental illness.
Happy Place is comprised of a series of vignettes about the daily interactions between 7 women who live on the same floor in an unnamed long-term care centre for those suffering from mental illness (6 patients and 1 health care professional). The play is set in a modern, minimalist room, painted in a soothing, almost sterile shade of white. Patients have access to a flat screen TV with 19 channels. Mandatory treatments include daily journalling, crafting, and group therapy.
Sinha’s dialogue has such a clever sense of humour that my guest and I joked about how it felt like we were watching a really good sitcom. This is not a bad thing – it’s time for a new portrayal of mental illness. There were no stereotypical images of wailing, “hysterical” women in dilapidated asylums here.
The performances were refreshingly understated. These women are well-dressed, they have jobs and family and friends who love them. While there may be a void of sadness and pain behind their eyes, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a sense of humour about it. They are so perceptive, caring, and strong that they sometimes seem to be better at supporting each other than the doctors they pay for. They could be one of my relatives or friends or co-workers.
There were moments, however, when I thought the naturalistic performances did not match up with the writing. At times the dialogue was too quipping, or the monologues too heavy for such a realistic delivery. But when it did work, the lines were delivered with such cutting candidness that I was surprised by the tears rising in my eyes. And I wasn’t the only one: the play often inspired audible reactions from the audience.
I also found the transitions a bit disorienting. Many scenes often ended with wonderful lines that deserved a longer pause before the actors rushed to change set pieces for the next one. Despite this, I did get used to the quick changes as the play went on.
It was evident that Happy Place wanted to present a more multifaceted, realistic representation of mental health issues, and I can see that the playwright wanted to give a different face to mental illness. Yet I do want to point out that there were only two actors of colour in the production and many of the characters had similar storylines involving husbands and/or children. My companion also remarked on how the condition of the centre seemed so different from experiences she had heard from close friends who were not as well-off as the characters–although the privilege of the characters’ financial means was acknowledged at certain points in the play.
I understand that it’s impossible for one play to show all the facets of such a highly complex, personal, and wide-reaching issue. Nevertheless, as someone who not only has a strong personal connection with this issue, but who has also spoken with a variety of women who have struggled with mental illness, I really wanted more variety in the stories we saw.
Don’t get me wrong, I still stand by everything I said in the opening paragraph. Happy Place is a well-written and well-performed play and we were riveted for the entirety of the two-plus hours. I think it is absolutely worth seeing and would highly recommend it for its innovative glimpse into mental illness. It is already so good, I just can’t help but wish it tried to go a little further.
- Happy Place is playing until October 17th at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery Historic District (50 Tank House Lane).
- Please check the Soulpepper Season Calendar for specific dates and times. The show runs for approximately 2 hours and 35 minutes. There is one 20 min intermission.
- Ticket are $24 -$89 and are available online at youngcentre.ca, by calling the Box Office at 416.866.8666, or in person. The Box Office is located in the atrium of the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, and is open Tuesday to Saturday from 1 – 8pm and two hours prior to a Sunday or Monday performance.
Photo of Caroline Gillis, Irene Poole and Pamela Mala Sinha by Cylla von Tiedemann.