Regional Reviews: St. Louis
But don't be misled by the dramatic title: this murder mystery has a light, natural sense of comedy along with skeins of believable suffering, which create a gentle, pitiable feeling in a psychiatric ward in an unnamed city. The locked-down patients find themselves solving a crime amidst a series of rocky events, dashing their hopes of eventual release. From the audience, their borderline illnesses (partially controlled by medicine and even shock therapy) become pervasive and enveloping.
And so the story, with its patients struggling to find balance despite their compulsive behaviors and regular crises, works its way into our consciousness–full of earnest naturalness and subtle, pained vulnerabilities. Locked Ward is set in 2003 and based on the playwright's own experience dealing with bipolar disorder ten years earlier.
Phil Gill directs with deep compassion and several very nice whimsical flourishes. And though the show suffers from over a half dozen longish scene changes (of dubious consequence), it likewise forces us to rearrange our own mental furniture along the way. The characters straddle a fine line between realism and staginess. At a runtime of just under two hours, the relationships gather a tentative warmth, and the final goodbyes of the parting patients become touching. The ones who must remain soon discover entirely new mysteries to carry them into the future, as the lights go down.
There are at least three good red herrings in the mystery and of course a dead body (Denise Mandle, due to some last minute re-casting). And each member of the ward staff comes under close scrutiny as possible suspects.
The well-known local actor Jaz Tucker plays Doctor Blumenthal, taking nothing for granted in his meticulous performance as the counselor, confessor and chemist on this floor. He shows an occasional flare of exasperation and possesses maybe just a little too much knowledge about the victim, in an otherwise affable performance. Mr. Tucker's perfectly paced psychological articulation on stage seems a constant encouragement to the other performers around him, as to the scope and meaning of artistic freedom in the service of a role. I feel very foolish that I've never noticed him doing all this before.
At the matinee I attended, stage manager Gwynneth Rausch did very well stepping in as a hard-nosed ward nurse, enlisted as a replacement for actress Lillie Weber, who's recently been diagnosed with COVID-19. As one of the patients, seasoned actor Ethan Isaac brings a light, haunted touch to the role of Glen, a former policeman with a drug dependency. His revelation that every crime contains its own inner logic adds a hilarious undertone in the backs of our minds, in this modern asylum. Because each patient here suffers from too much internal logic, perhaps.
Uche Ijei seems confident and at home as the bipolar Eleanor, whose strange breakdown and exile becomes one of several points of high drama in the play. Stephen Thompson Sr. is excellent as Vladimir, a dour, anguished patient who embarks on a tenuous (but successful) comic partnership opposite Duncan Phillips, who shows artful restraint as an earnest but jittery Trekkie with OCD. And Jalani (Tamia) Hale is heartwrenching as Jill, whose depression (in 2003) is treated with electrical shock. Her attempted seduction of the doctor is eerily realistic.
But don't let the diagnostics (or the treatment) lead you off the scent. Like any good mystery, the anguished testimonies of the various murder suspects are always 90% of the show. And in this case, good writing, direction and acting are a tonic for us all. Finally, like any great story, we are delivered to quite an unexpected place in the end.
Locked Ward runs through August 21, 2022, at the Kranzberg Black Box Theatre, 501 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information please visit www.firstruntheatre.org.