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  WINDY CITY TIMES

THEATER REVIEW Firebirds Take the Field
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-05-03

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Playwright: Lynn Rosen. At: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N. Ridge Ave. Tickets: $38. Runs through: May 27

Centuries of empirical evidence attest to the phenomenon of psychological stress manifesting itself in physical symptoms, as well as the quasi-infectious nature of this mind-body connection—particularly in groups of adolescent females, though all ages are susceptible. Famous cases of such mass delusion in our own country include the 1692 witch scare in Salem, Massachusetts, and the 1944 "Mad Gasser" scare in our neighboring city of Mattoon, Illinois.

With so much documentation, the 2012 outbreak in upstate New York of teenagers falling prey to inexplicable seizures of involuntary vocal and muscular twitches should have immediately launched inquiries into the social problems associated with an economically devastated community—domestic tensions fueled by marital discord and absentee parenting, reductions in medical services, children burdened with family responsibilities beyond their years. When chaos is encroaching on your own environment, however, affecting the people you know, deliverance is often difficult to implement.

Lynn Rosen's play explores the dynamic of what is properly called "conversion disorder" through the microcosmic narrative of former townie-turned-Big-Pharma doctor Avery responding to a plea from divorced ex-BFF Helen for an investigation into the mysterious malady whose adverse publicity threatens the recovery of their abandoned municipality. As identification of the contagion's source grows ever more elusive, even Avery succumbs to the crippling malaise before an epiphany enables our physician to heal herself and the others around her.

Rosen's text includes discussion of how this is accomplished, but concerns itself less with clinical caveats than with the aggravating factors leading to gender-linked levels of emotional suppression engendering epidemics of erratic behavior ( significantly, the annoying "villains" who vent their obstructive opinions frequently, loudly and abrasively remain immune to the debilitating spasms ). Lest we dismiss the affliction dubbed by news media the "cheerleader disease" as a purely feminine aberration—a misconception refuted by observation of war veterans, male and female—Jessica Fisch's direction of an adroit cast led by Meighan Gerachis and Rebecca Spence ( with a brief, but important, appearance by the always-commanding Margaret Kusterman ) affirms its status as an equal-opportunity infirmity.


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