When mental illness appears in the news, it's often associated with violent events and editorials about preventing mentally ill people from harming others. The counterargument to more gun regulation is often a call for more mental health care. What's missing in that discussion, however, is the daily struggle with mental illness that many people -- who will never commit violent crimes or make headlines -- face, often alone.
Playwright David Lee White writes movingly of one such person in Fixed, a world premiere at Trenton's Passage Theatre Company. In director Maureen Heffernan's smart production, Maria Konstantinidis plays Ronnie, whose high-school friends Daryl (Phillip Gregory Burke) and Janine (Alicia Isabel Rivas) intervene when she's spiraling.
"What's wrong with her?" Valerie asks Daryl, who encounters Ronnie raving on the street after a decade of estrangement. "One person thinks she's bipolar, but he's not sure," he answers. "Another person thinks it's schizophrenia, but he's not sure either. Another person thinks it's something called schizoaffective disorder."
"What's that?" Valerie asks.
"It's like a mug of schizophrenia with a splash of bipolar disorder," Daryl jokes, and then apologizes. It's no laughing matter.
Much of Fixed revisits the trio's high-school friendship, when they would meet at a local sculpture called the Rhombus. Daryl and Valerie aspired to careers after high school, while Ronnie just wanted to escape. But she couldn't run away from the voices in her head, which we often hear as whispers in Chris Sannino's sound design. Amanda Jensen’s lighting augments this effect with illumination that flickers like fireflies in when the voices act up.
Konstantinidis excels as mercurial Ronnie, whose manic moments hide her terrible home life. She switches impressively from Ronnie's almost-normal teenage behavior to her mid-30s derangement. Burke and Rivas likewise transition between the two time periods, believably revealing the bonding of high-school misfits and their uneasy adult relationship. They're joined in the present by Deena Jiles-Shu'aib as a harried but well-meaning doctor who steers Ronnie into treatment, despite the many hurdles required by a splintered mess of programs.
Heffernan's production emphasizes the flow of scenes in two time periods, using Susan DeConcini's set of six framed screens in different shapes, like puzzle pieces, onto which drawings of locations are projected along with abstract representations of emotional states, giving the play a hand-drawn, graphic-novel quality.
While Fixed doesn't shy away from the ugliness and messiness of mental illness, White's story is ultimately positive, stressing the importance of the caring people who can intercede for mentally ill people. Alone, they face a bureaucratic abyss, but with supportive friends, Ronnie's tale shows, they might have a chance. Our health care system provides no clear path now for those seeking help, however, and recent developments suggest that assistance will be even more difficult in the future.
"Fixed" can mean "repaired," of course, which is unlikely with mental illness. Like addiction, maintenance of mental illness requires constant effort. "Fixed" also means "stuck in one place." Which meaning best describes mental health care in our country is up to us.