Dallas — We read daily posts and Tweets and see TV commercials about the power of drugs to help the depressed, the anxious, the panicked and other people suffering from mental illnesses in our intense and competitive modern society where people number their Facebooks friends in the hundreds, but often can’t turn to a single real live best friend for help.
Should we wrestle our demons without a pill? Is a depressed woman not her “real self” if she takes an anti-depressant to lessen her anguish? How can we express our joys and terrors fully and without reserve to our partners? Or should we?
The titular miracle drug in Ana Nogueira’s Empathitrax lets those who swallow it communicate their emotions, totally and instantly, simply by touching each other. Wow. This is way deeper than sex on ecstasy or acid, and wildly dramatic for the couple trying very, very hard to revive a frayed 10-year relationship.
In Second Thought Theatre’s production, adventurous, energetic Her (Jenny Ledel) and organized, budget-keeping Him (Drew Wall) sign on for a trial prescription of this love-enhancing drug, swallow a pill in hilarious ritual fashion and dive into each other, literally and emotionally.
Director Carson McCain, who also directed Second Thought’s production of Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan and was assistant director for Herzog's Belleville (the latter also starred Ledel and Wall) creates a rhythmic, jazzy pace, alternating intense connection, painful arguments and comic intervention in the person of a colorful Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, the newest member of Dallas Theater Center’s resident acting ensemble, is double-booked as the slick pharmaceutical rep Joe and Matty D, a rocker and doper and best friend to Him.
The results of ingesting the new drug are electric, comic and terrifying. Holding each other and feeling the mutual vibes, they’re ecstatic in their surprise about how each is connected to the other more than words can say, although the playwright gives them some:
“You really, really like me,” she says, her eyes widening with relief and delight.
“I really, really do,” he replies, his voice hoarse with honesty, as the happy lovers entangle under the blanket on the back of the sofa.
Ah, but there’s trouble right here in Pharma City. When Her weens herself off Zoloft in a determined effort to reveal her innermost “great sadness” to Him, Ledel’s entire face and body changes from adorable sprite with ironic wit to a square-jawed, slack woman, drained of hope and huddled on the coach. Ledel is such a complete actress, stepping gracefully, body and soul, into a role whether doing Chekhov (she just finished Three Sisters at Undermain Theatre) or a plucky Shakespeare heroine. Here, Ledel makes us feel Her’s ragged spikes of optimism and hopelessness, as we also question the character’s quasi-sadistic insistence that her partner descend to the depths of depression with her.
Wall’s Him is a sweet, naturally empathetic dude, holding his lover close to him, as we watch panic fill his eyes and his body stiffen as he absorbs the weight of Her hard burden. Wall’s noted comic skills are hilariously called up when he meets up with Matty D, and the two of them get off on a laughing binge while vaping marijuana and recalling their old times together. We totally sympathize when he’s tempted to just put on his sneaks and keep running when the distance between the two partners in this troubled relationship becomes increasingly murky.
Ramirez, a fresh, cool breeze in any show, and Wall are a natural comic team in the interludes when the confounded Him talks to his pal about how his partner feels it “in her toes and stomach, and I only feel it in my chest.” Matty agrees that “women are complicated.”
The action takes place in Bryant Hall’s intimate space with Amelia Bransky’s handsome, detailed house set, complete with upholstery and paintings in cool blues and greens, reiterated by costume designer Amanda Capshaw. (Bransky, an MFA student at SMU, also designed the stunning Frankenstein set in the recent Dallas Theater Center production.) The roof line is made of sturdy rafters, holding it all together. Lighting designers Aaron Johansen and Will Elphinstone enhance the action in exquisite ways. At one point, Her is clutching the phone tightly, talking about reducing her Zoloft medication, and the rafter shadows make a barred prison of her tidy apartment.
Preston Gray’s mood-enhancing sound design includes an actual player in the insistent bark of an invisible crated pup who nonetheless instigates big laughs as his whining triggers a comic scene that is further complicated when she touches the dog and feels his forlorn puppy loneliness.
The end comes swiftly and with a rush of nostalgia, surprise and a crazy sweetness to be relished, as Her and Him wrangle through the woods of the modern human soul in peril, both in reality and in fantasy.