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THEATER REVIEW Lipstick Lobotomy
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2020-02-18

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Playwright: Krista Knight

At: Trap Door Theater, 1655 W. Cortland Ave. Tickets: $20-$25; Trapdoor.ticketleap.com . Runs through: March 21

Home, goes the adage, is where they have to take you in, but if you're an adult female viewed by your kin as a liability to its tribal aspirations, you might find yourself sequestered under the surveillance of gentle-but-firm warders in some remote retreat providing palliative care to the infirm of mind, body or impulse control—sanitariums having supplanted convents as cloistered residences befitting ladies of sheltered upbringing.

Among the cruelties cited in the demystification of the once-revered Kennedy clan is its patriarch's decision in 1941 to subject his eldest daughter to a then-experimental psychosurgery known today as prefrontal lobotomy, all other methods of curtailing her incorrigible behavior having failed to reduce its threat to the family advancement.

This isn't the story that Krista Knight is here to recount, however. While Rosemary Kennedy may be the celebrity "guest" at the fictional Institute For Living, our protagonist is one Virginia Harrison Hamann—"Ginny" to her friends—on whose real-life journals her great-niece's play is based. In contrast to the headstrong heiress who becomes her confidante in this likewise fictional tale, Ginny's search for escape from the depression rendering her imperfect in the eyes of her demanding father leads her to embrace the often-unproven therapies offered by eager doctors looking to make their reputations.

While the power invested in male authorities may lie at the source of the atrocities inflicted upon the women of their day, the prejudices of a rarified society in mid-century North America, as depicted by Knight, must also share the blame. After Ginny reveals her Jewish ancestry, Rosemary's reflexive rejection sparks the retort "Well, you're Catholic! That's just as bad!" In an atmosphere of xenophobia arising from the possibility of war with Germany, uncertified childbirths and fraternization with divorcees are regarded as impediments to an Irish immigrant family with political ambitions like the Kennedys.

Trap Door Theatre makes no attempt to reproduce the full spectrum of a well-endowed "health" resort, but instead relies on Jacqueline Froly's jungle-gym climbing apparatus to suggest the Institute's indoor and outdoor furnishings, from recreational facilities to cells equipped with restraints and cephalogrammic electrodes ( playgoers prone to hospital nightmares might want to look away during the cerebral amputation scene ). Providing the thematic undercurrent for Knight's narrative is Mike Mazzocca's score linking Irving Berlin's patriotic anthem "God Bless America" ( the cadence-chant prescribed for daily exercises ) with the infantile ditty "Animal Crackers."

Kate Hendrikson's direction is additionally enlivened by such presentational devices as grotesque fixed-smile masks, Brechtian title cards and age/ethnic-fluid casting, but what remains in our memories afterward ( besides a deep suspicion of medical science ) is the empathy generated by Ann Sonneville and Abby Blankenship in the roles of the forlorn damsels whose thwarted potential might have brought them peace and contentment in a more enlightened world.


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