In her riveting, sometimes grueling monologue "Sick," Seattle actress Elizabeth Kenny plunges into the nightmare maze of mysterious symptoms and failed treatments she experienced.
Seattle actor Elizabeth Kenny has a story to tell you. It is riveting. It is not pretty.
It includes psychotic episodes with hallucinations, time in a locked psych ward, helplessness, confusion, rage. Also, amazingly, a happy (and lucky) ending.
In her almost-solo, New City Theater show “Sick,” Kenny outlines her sudden plummet a few years ago into a perplexing maze of terrifying symptoms. And into a quagmire of misdiagnosis and harmful treatment, all triggered by a not-uncommon gynecological problem.
Her goal in taking us through this labyrinth? That’s not always clear. But it is a very vivid, at times grueling, dramatic ride.
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Kenny is an animated, intensely expressive woman in her late 30s, with striking pale eyes and an unruly mane of dark curly hair. You may recognize her from appearances in other offbeat New City pieces staged by John Kazanjian (who also directed “Sick”).
But in this case Kenny takes the big risk of ripping off the mask of illusion, and playing herself in extremis.
There are a few framing devices used to convey her story, which alter the picture just enough to create a bit of theatrical distance, instill spontaneity and keep this from becoming a neatly resolved “Oprah” segment.
The most obvious, and interesting, device is having a sort of editor (Tina Kunz Rowley) seated on stage, to “prompt” Kenny by reading her evocative words off note cards.
Cunz also rings a small bell when she feels it’s time for Kenny to move on to another segment of her tale. (The cards were inspired by monologuist extraordinaire Spalding Gray’s use of them in his autobiographical piece, “A Personal History of the American Theatre.”)
The story itself is detailed, and harrowing. It starts with a mild depression, perhaps related to hormone therapy used to treat Kenny’s cysts. (This is a mite confusing.)
But once a perfectly well-meaning psychiatrist comes aboard, and starts prescribing a drug regime that begins with anti-depressants and soon escalates to anti-psychotic and other heavy drugs, Kenny’s existence becomes a living hell.
She describes monstrous hallucinations, including a demonic alter ego urging her toward self destruction.
There are also weird and debilitating physical symptoms, which lead to a loss of autonomy, an inability to work, and finally, to moving back East to be nursed by her justly concerned and horrified mother.
Then it gets much, much worse, before it gets better.
Kenny comes across as feisty and brash, with a wicked sense of humor that helps pull her through, and keeps “Sick” from being a massively bleak downer.
There are times, though, when one feels like a voyeur gobbling up the gory details of her experience. And there are times when you think, “Why are you telling me all this?” — as you might when a friend launches into an unsparing monologue about, say, a serious car accident.
Kenny waits until near the end to give us a raison d’être for her hour-plus-long memoir, maybe because she wants us to discover the key to her illness the way she did — after many failed treatments.
So “Sick” does become a cautionary story about the way our medical system jumps to conclusions, overmedicates (and cozies up to the pharmaceutical industry), and doesn’t listen carefully enough to those in distress.
And while it might be helpful to have a few caveats here, given that psychotropic drugs make life bearable for millions of Americans suffering some actual mental illness, Kenny’s case is worth considering. And it is prosecuted with a gut-wrenching immediacy one won’t soon forget.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org