The cast of Michael Mulder’s drama Atrium look a little shell shocked and plenty tired at the end of Monday night’s rehearsal.
Atrium is that kind of play. No punch is pulled; No soul escapes getting flayed to its messy, vulnerable essence.
Director Kim Campbell discovered the play about a year ago. She’s discovered that Mulder was a Denton resident, and a former protégé of the late Ralph Culp, who taught theater at the University of North Texas, then lent his expertise to Denton Community Theatre as an acting coach. Culp was integral in the community theater advancing in a festival of community theaters. He was an acting coach to the cast of a one-act cutting of the play Doubt: A Parable directed by Mildred A. Peveto.
Culp urged Mulder to apply for the prestigious master’s program in playwriting at Columbia University. Mulder was accepted and attended, but didn’t graduate.
“Atrium is the show that came out of his time at Columbia,” Campbell said. “We were wanting to do the show, and about this time last year, we were having trouble finding a venue.”
Performance space is a perennial problem for Denton’s established and indie theater companies, and Campbell came up short.
Polly Maynard Watson was part of the group that formed around the show last year.
“I don’t think either Kim or I were ready to shelve the project,” Watson said. “We knew we wanted to produce it. The question was where.”
Campbell went before the production board at Denton Community Theatre to pitch the project for the company’s plucky second season, a yearly grouping of about three shows inked on the calendar for the POINTBank Black Box Theatre.
Atrium brings six unmoored souls together in a commons area of an unnamed, upscale hospital for people with mental illnesses — this includes the disease of addiction. There’s Mr. Conley, the patient who’s been here the longest. Herb Newton plays Conley with gentlemanly grace and child-like wonder. Conley’s the Shakespearean fool, telling inconvenient truths in poetic riddles.
There’s Jenny, a woman not really on the mend after years of childhood sexual and emotional abuse. Polly Maynard Watson takes on the wounded woman, who appears to have a personality — an accent, posture and worldview — for each past season soiled by loathsome adults.
Sterling Gafford, who just spent months yucking it up in Music Theatre of Denton’s Spamalot, plays Lucas, an adult film actor who has gotten so down and dirty with cocaine and other drugs that he can’t get it up. Barbara, played by Sharon Barnhill, struggles to remember the past 20 years that have been burned from her brain from electro-convulsive therapy. Estelle, played by Dena Dunn, is the most recent arrival. She’s fallen apart after a seismic marital shift.
Ron, played by Mike Stephens, is at the hospital after a suicide attempt, his last-ditch effort to end his losing battle with the ugliest demon among this crew. Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, not everyone comes out alive or intact.
The actors said even with the gruesome details shared by the group, the characters’ have their mysteries and unanswered questions.
“I think [Lucas] has thought too much of the loving side of him. He’s habituated it so much through sex that he can’t really get close to anyone any other way,” Gafford said. “I’ve played around with the idea of him having mommy issues. I think the cocaine mask the issues he’s had for a long time. Here, his emotional issues come out in spikes, almost.”
Barnhill can do more inventing with Barbara, a sweet, chain-smoking depressive who struggles to stay lucid. Twenty years of “shock therapy” have left Barbara a ghost.
“I drew from several people to get to Barbara,” Barnhill said. “She’s had pretty significant memory loss, but she still remembers the emotions.”
Newton has a lot of blanks to fill in, too, as the senior resident of the group. Mr. Conley spends most of his time in the atrium hiding among potted plants, interjecting shards of answers to eternal questions. His most urgent need is to bend the hospital’s policy requiring pants in common areas.
“He’s making himself happy in his own little world,” Newton said. “I don’t think he doesn’t fight. His way is just his own.”
For Watson, Jenny is a rigorous character, alternately childlike and tough, foul-mouthed and sweet.
“I don’t think Jenny has a lot of hope, but she wants to be well,” Watson said. “The way she deals with everything is to do what other people want her to do. She sort of melds into whatever anyone wants to be, and I think she melds into who she needs to be. She’s a pleaser. A chameleon.”
As Estelle, Dunn adopts a teaching role. Estelle has landed in a mental hospital after lashing out violently to retaliate against a vexing husband. She tries to guide her peers — all of whom are mentally less healthy but more emotionally sound than she — through the maze of treatment and therapy. She deflects, holds in and waves away her embarrassing choices, but they tax her through unrelenting nightmares.
“The others don’t trust Estelle, other than Lucas,” Dunn said. “And why should they? She hasn’t been there very long.”
While telling everyone how to get well, Estelle sabotages herself by diving into a sexual relationship with Lucas. She mothers Ron, a gay man who douses truly grotesque appetites with booze. Ron’s story is the most difficult of the show. He represents the ultimate boogeyman, preying on the weak and trusting to sate horrible lusts. Mulder does the near-impossible through Ron; he makes us capable of forgiving — even loving some part — of the worst brand of reprobate humanity can dream of or unleash. Audiences needn’t worry. No one despises Ron more than Ron hates himself.
“I’ve found the goodness in Ron through his disgust at what he’s done, and how much he wants to stop it even if it means killing himself,” Stephens said. “I think he cares about others. He keeps a close eye on Barbara. He worries about her. I think Ron will get out of the hospital, I think he will kill himself. I think that’s the only way he can go on.”
Atrium won’t be an easy or pleasant night at the theater, but it will challenge audiences to acknowledge the frailty of the least of these — the sick, the dying and the lost. And audiences might wonder how the ensemble shrugs the cloak of suffering from their shoulders when the second act ends.
“Who says we do?” Watson asked. “We do take this out of here with us. There’s no other choice.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
Who: Denton Community Theatre
What: A drama by Michael Mulder
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Additional performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and 2 p.m. on April 6 at Dan’s Silverleaf, 103 Industrial St.
Where: POINTBank Black Box Theatre, 318 E. Hickory St.
How much: $15 for all Black Box performance tickets. Prices to be announced for Dan’s Silverleaf perfomances.
Details: Rated R for strong language and sexual themes.