KPBS AIRDATE: OCTOBER 21, 1998
Okay, so your mother washes her hands 1000 times a day, to the accompaniment of opera. And she has a spastic colon and lives in fear of everything and just keeps wishing that “life will go away.” And your father, a judgmental German-Jew who escaped the Holocaust, lives a life of interminable disgust, disappointment and dissatisfaction. Both of them think their marriage and children were a mistake. And outside your happy little home, the world has gone insane. Is it any wonder that you wind up in a loony bin?
Ron Punit Auerbacher tells all in his one-man portrait of a family and exploration of his own inexorable downhill slide from Yale student to locked-ward mental patient. It was the time of assassinations and the Vietnam War and the desperate need to re-think everything you believed in. In some ways, he was as obsessed as his mother, but his mind was trained on social injustice, spiritual questions, his own sexual identity and the function of education. It just about drove him mad.
“I believe I was rendered dysfunctional,” he told me recently, “which was a mirror of things happening in society at large.” He hates the term ‘mental illness.’ “It’s not something you have or you catch,” he said. “People have real concerns, and legitimate needs. That term just doesn’t take into account how complex human beings are.”
To him, it all depends on how you’re treated, and how your needs are met. Auerbacher did experience a bit of love and warmth as a child, in the person of his family’s black housekeeper. As he grew older, he developed a profound love of literature. And later, when he was 18 and hospitalized, one brave health care worker saw him as creative and not sick, and it turned his life around.
Now he can look back on the most awful years and bring them to light, and to life, onstage. He plays all the characters in his family drama: himself at various ages; his paranoid, anorexic mother; his dour, controlling, guilt-inducing father; a variety of fellow “rebel and misfit” mental patient/inmates; and, briefly and indirectly, that big, warm, affectionate housekeeper.
As written by Auerbacher and directed by Neil Rothschild, the piece sometimes devotes too much time to one episode or character, not enough to another. Sometimes the portraits border on caricature; he doesn’t get inside those people quite enough for us to empathize or care. Sometimes, the writing is too on the nose, and doesn’t trust the audience enough to understand, even if we haven’t been there; we’ve ALL got families and stories. It’s an unfair comparison, of course, but the readings from Auerbacher’s gay/political idol, James Baldwin, represent the most inspiring and powerful writing of the evening.
But these sad/funny reminiscences are brilliantly backed by music of the times, which seamlessly guides us through the author’s (and the country’s) painful passage from the 1950s to the 1980s.
This is a scary-tale in some ways, about how the past revisits and haunts the present, and how, regardless of whether or how much you resist, both genes and the environment will exert their profound and often destructive influences. But it’s also about how it’s possible to claw your way up and climb back, to re-enter the world of the (semi)sane, to shake off the role of outcast and victim, and rejoin the human race.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.