Thursday, March 08, 2018

Good for Otto

What if the most heroic thing any of us can do is simply to survive?

[spoilers, arguably, but this is not a plot-driven show]

In Good for Otto, David Rabe gives us a microcosm of a small town--and perhaps of humanity--through scenes from a mental health center. Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris), whose mother killed herself when he was nine, devotes himself to his patients, often marrying calm acceptance with sympathetic guidance. But he also over-identifies with ssome patients, including the smart, volatile, and frighteningly ill Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), 12 years old with a brain full of "storms" that she relieves by cutting herself. Michaels' colleague Evangeline (Amy Madigan) also devotes herself to her patients, though her boundaries may be sounder. Both therapists despair at the bureaucratic limitations that threaten their patients' care.

Ed Harris and cast (and some audience members)
Photo: Monique Carboni

The patients vary widely. There's Timothy, on the autism spectrum and trying to learn how to "widen his circle," but unable to absorb the subtle rules of social interactions. This role verges on stereotype. (Although Mark Lynn-Baker's performance is charming, an actor on the spectrum might have offered more insight and less stereotyping.) Barnard (F. Murray Abraham) is trying to find a post-retirement reason to get out of bed. Alex is a manipulative gay man (also verging on stereotype), lonely enough to invent imaginary relationships. Jane is mourning her son Jimmy, who committed suicide. (Rabe's treatment of suicide is insightful and, perhaps accidentally, an excellent argument for gun control. Jimmy isn't planning to kill himself, but then he notices a shotgun in the corner. It speaks to him much as a piece of pie might speak to someone on a diet. And he picks it up, as he has hundreds of times, but this time he points it at himself. As he dies, he thinks, "Oh shit.")

Good for Otto takes place partially in Dr. Michaels' brain and partially, I think, in reality. When actors aren't in a scene, they sit on stage, as do some audience members. Michaels tells them about the town, his life, and his patients. Michaels also has a judgmental, annoying version of his mother in his head. She serves as a constant reminder of Michaels' ultimate powerlessness; some people just can't be saved.

There's a lot going on in Good for Otto's three hours: basic storytelling, an indictment of the treatment of mental health issues in the U.S., and an examination of the plight of "twenty-first century Americans in the land of plenty," as Michaels calls them. What stayed with me, however, is Rabe's presentation of the quotidian pressures of being alive, with the sense (as alluded to above) that simply surviving takes heroism and is heroism. The play might take place down the road from Our Town's Grover's Corners, with the mental health center presenting the flip side of that play's more simple view of life.

Although Good for Otto occasionally feels dated, as in Rabe's treatment of autism and homosexuality, it is largely a loving, moving piece that honors the struggles of everyday life and everyday people.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, second row)

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