Alice Birch probes the dark psyches of three generations of tormented women in Anatomy of a Suicide. The award-winning play, previously presented at London’s Royal Court, is getting its U.S. premiere courtesy of Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, the affecting production is highlighted by a haunting performance from Carla Gugino.
In an explosive look at the causes and impact of suicide, a trio of stories unfolds concurrently over an hour and 45 minutes. On one part of the stage, it’s the 1970s, when Carol (Gugino) tries to function as a wife and mother, until it gets to be too much for her. Two decades later, her daughter Anna (Celeste Arias) battles drugs and her own demons, including the memory of her mother’s suicide when she was a teenager. Although Anna marries, returns to the family home and gives birth to a daughter, in the end she can’t escape Carol’s fate.
Flash-forward to the future, when Anna’s adult daughter Bonnie (Gabby Beans) is a doctor who appears to be doing fine. But she has trouble forming relationships and abhors even the thought of motherhood. As Bonnie fights to free herself from the mental health problems that consumed her mother and grandmother, Birch suggests that she is more than just the sum of her DNA. Although suicide can run in families, the British playwright also explores the role that environment plays. Here, the family home where Carol and Anna both ended their lives becomes a throbbing source of pain for Bonnie, who is determined to sell it.
Even though Bonnie’s saga doesn’t resonate as fully as that of her relatives, Birch’s sharp dialogue slices to the core of her characters’ turmoil. At times chaos reigns onstage – the play is comprised of short scenes and often overlapping conversations – but for the most part, Blain-Cruz ably juggles the play’s shifting scenes and moods with her cast, which includes Richard Topol as Carol’s husband and Ava Briglia as teenage Anna in strong supporting roles. Gugino’s best moments actually come when Carol is alone, staring blankly out at a world she cannot fathom. Her pained expressions speak volumes about her character’s plight.