SBU Brings 'The Walls' to Garret Theater

By Samantha Berkhead
SBU ’14

SBU Theater will stage its production of Lisa Dillman’s “The Walls” beginning Wednesday, Nov. 13, and running through Saturday, Nov. 16, at 7:30 p.m. in the Garret Theater on campus.

The 2007 drama, which is revised periodically and received its most recent script revision in February, follows the story of Carrie, a young writer studying the cases of women who were institutionalized for “hysteria” and behavioral disorders in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“It’s a beautiful piece and it presents in an accessible way the difficulties society has had and continues to have in dealing with mental illness in women,” Dr. Ed. Simone, director, said. “It opens up those subjects in a really good way.”

Simone said he was impressed by Dillman’s play when he saw it performed at the Kennedy Center/American College Theater Region II Festival in Maryland earlier this year, particularly by the playwright’s honest and respectful handling of the issue of mental illness.

“Sometimes, when you deal with a subject like mental illness, it’s so overwhelmingly depressing or shocking that it’s hard to wrap your head around it,” he said. “And then other times, it’s treated so lightly and so frivolously that it doesn’t have any impact. But this play walks that wonderful line between those two extremes. It’s very watchable and very enriching, but at the same time it doesn’t pull too many punches.”

During her research, Carrie — played by junior theater and journalism and mass communication major Tori Lanzillo — finds her own struggles reflected in the women of the past. Her mother, Virginia (played by senior journalism and mass communication major Mary Best), was diagnosed with dementia during Carrie’s adolescence, and Carrie’s fear of being diagnosed with the same illness haunts her throughout the play.

“It is definitely the most challenging role I’ve had here by far,” Lanzillo said. “You see my character at different ages throughout the play, so I had to work hard on trying to distinguish each different age. Each character in this show has so many layers and is so interesting. Even though we are getting closer to the actual production of the show, I still find myself finding out new things about my character every day.”

Best expressed similar sentiments regarding her character.

“Besides being twice my real age, she’s incredibly dramatic and delights in playing extremes, whether it be rage or overwhelming joy,” Best said. “As an actor, I've had to push myself farther than I was comfortable with at first to figure out how to embody that no-filter, emotion-driven mindset in a believable way.” Simone felt confident that his actors could take on the challenges this play presented, particularly that of accurately portraying a character with a mental illness.

“I think one of the purposes of academic theater is to challenge students by choosing pieces that raise the bar for them and challenge them to grow as actors, designers and technicians,” he said. “One of the things we did early on with the actresses was say ‘Look, research the symptoms. Look at what you’re portraying.’ We also haven’t put the emphasis on tech as much in this production; the emphasis is really on the acting. It’s a small cast; every actor carries a good bit of the performance.”

Rebecca Misenheimer, associate professor of theater, designed the set for this production of “The Walls.” Simone said the set’s off-kilter and awkward appearance help convey different levels and points of reality.

“The set is set up in levels that are, in some instances, deliberately awkward,” he said. “The angles don’t match. The whole set is skewed. The idea is to give people a sense of being off-balance, of being slightly uncomfortable in this setting because it doesn’t quite look real.”

In a society where mental illness is often stigmatized and misunderstood, Simone said “The Walls” and its ultimately hopeful message present a sympathetic view of women with these afflictions.

“I think any time that we can expose the humanity and the essential reality of something that is quite prevalent and yet carries with it a stigma — which is depressing that it still does in 2013 — we can help change these misconceptions,” he said. “That’s certainly what we’re hoping. I think that’s what Lisa Dillman hopes as well.”

Best said she’s excited to see how the Bonaventure community reacts to the play upon seeing it performed.

“I hope they really like it. It’s a brilliant piece of theater and everyone involved is putting their heart and soul into their performance,” she said. “‘The Walls’ is edgy and powerful, and I hope they not only enjoy the show, but leave the theater with a new or enhanced perspective on the idea of ‘crazy.’”

The cast features the following students:

· Junior Tori Lanzillo - Victor, N.Y.
· Senior Mary Best - Alden, N.Y.
· Senior Makeda Loney - Brooklyn, N.Y.
· Senior Chasity Brooke Perkins - Utica, Ohio
· Freshman Nathan Cass
· Junior Lea Battaglia - Seneca Falls, N.Y.
· Sophomore Whitney Downard - Vestal, N.Y.
· Senior Frederick Alvarez - Bronx, N.Y.
· Freshman Miguel Lopez - Brooklyn, N.Y.

“The Walls” contains adult language and subjects including depictions of self-harm, attempted suicide and dementia. It is not intended for pre-teens.

“The Walls” plays Wednesday, Nov. 13, through, Saturday, Nov. 16, at 7:30 p.m. in the Garret Theater. Tickets are $8 for the public, $6 for SBU employees and students. Free student rush tickets will be available on a limited basis one hour before curtain at the Garret Theater box office, one ticket per valid student ID, in-person only.

For tickets and information, please call the box office at (716) 375-2494.

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