Spreading the anguish

Philadelphia Theatre Company's Empathitrax is an unrealistic and irresponsible portrayal of mental illness

6 minute read
Makoto, an Asian man, kneels and flamboyantly holds out a plate to Claire, a white woman, in front of their large beige couch
Can love cure depression? Makoto Hirano and Claire Inie-Richards in PTC’s ‘Empathitrax.’ (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

With our own Senator Fetterman admitted to the hospital for depression last week, it’s a great time to examine narratives of mood disorders and other mental illnesses in the media, including on our stages. Unfortunately, Empathitrax, onstage through March 5, 2023, at Philadelphia Theatre Company, is a troubling and irresponsible portrayal of mental illness.

I saw this production with BSR colleague Cameron Kelsall. But I’ll add to his review, since I live with bipolar disorder and relate to the play’s central struggle. Content note! This essay discusses mental illnesses and suicidality. There are also Empathitrax spoilers.

Other important notes: of course, no single piece of drama can encompass every experience. My experience of mental illness doesn’t represent everyone’s. And accessing mental healthcare is a privilege in America’s inhumane, profit-driven medical complex.

The stakes

Playwright Ana Nogueira, an East Falls native, reveals Him and Her (Claire Inie-Richards and Makoto Hirano), a couple trying to save their 10-year relationship. Enter Empathitrax, a new drug that lets its users perceive the unfiltered feelings of others simply by touching them.

The show’s materials make this premise clear, but you find out in the theater that this is not just the story of a long-term relationship (as the artists emphasize in the production materials), but a story about living with depression. The woman describes her despair, and Inie-Richards infuses her performance with a raw and tender heaviness. The character takes the SSRI antidepressant Zoloft, which relieves her symptoms, but dampens her sex drive (a common dilemma). We learn in at least two scenes that she has suicidal thoughts, so the stakes of her treatment are high.

Stopping the medicine

Her stops taking the antidepressant in favor of the empathy drug. In his review, Cameron perceives this is because Her experiences “a pure state of happiness” on Empathitrax; I say that Her isn’t chasing happiness at all, but a sense that someone finally clocks her suffering. With a touch, Him experiences his partner’s depression and suicidal thoughts. He recoils in horror and then mirrors Her on the couch: now neither of them can get up to feed the dog.

Yes, people with severe mood disorders long for understanding of our suffering. But in my experience, we also fear letting others in on it. That fear can make us so wary of contact that we won’t pick up the phone. I can entertain Nogueira’s premise of pharmaceutical-powered empathy; I’m less willing to accept that a person with severe depression would repeatedly choose to spread her anguish to someone else, instead of seeking treatment.

Her decides that the antidepressant clouds her true self—a harmful trope that can make people reluctant to get the help they need.

Mental illness in a vacuum

Him and Her float in a spare high-rise in an anonymous city. We know almost nothing about their careers, their outside lives, or even the history of their relationship. We don’t know anything about Her’s treatment, except that she’s on (and then off) Zoloft.

She doesn’t seem to have a therapist or psychiatrist (bizarrely, she calls the Empathitrax salesman for help with her withdrawal syndrome). And the way she quits her SSRI without medical supervision (in a glib three-week montage) isn’t just impossible for most real patients; it’s dangerous (though Nogueira’s nod to “brain zaps” is recognizable to everyone who’s taken these drugs).

This is mental illness in a vacuum, amputated from the rest of our lives and the realities of treatment. Similarly, we like to pretend the causes of mental illness are unpredictable and inscrutable. The reality is a double-edged sword. These illnesses are complex and connected to genetics; upbringing; trauma; grief; health, social, and economic factors; systemic oppressions; and more. That can make them difficult to diagnose and treat. But on the other hand, it opens a world of possible approaches to treatment, and when therapeutic and lifestyle interventions meet the right meds (if needed), unraveling the things that trigger or worsen your symptoms becomes an effective, empowering dialogue with the larger world.

But this reality must be hard to dramatize.

The couple conundrum

In the world of the play, Empathitrax is only available to couples (just like the chance to be co-artistic directors at PTC?). But I can’t tell if this play is critiquing or merely reflecting the toxic reality that we as a society believe empathy is best reserved for romantic relationships, and that these relationships top all others.

Nell Bang-Jensen aspires to more in her director’s note: “Think of what we could change, societally and globally, if we could all feel what it meant to experience what someone else was going through as we moved through our own days.” But the play doesn’t explore this. A third character who obtains Empathitrax learns that women are people—and uses that revelation (played for laughs here) merely to improve his own dating life.

I wish Empathitrax got beyond our fixation on romantic love, a fixation that weighs heavily on narratives of mental illness—and not just because the pressure to find and keep a partner can perpetuate self-image problems, anxiety, depression, and abuse.

Speaking of romance, Empathitrax ends on a common falsehood about love and depression. At the crucial moment, Him finally shows Her the love she craves, and the determinedly gray box of a set flies out to find them in a misty forest, beckoned by soothing rain and waves crashing on a nearby beach. Her floods with joy, optimism, and feeling as the lights go down for the last time. But love doesn’t cure mental illness—and the perpetuation of this idea hurts people living with these disorders, as well as their loved ones.

The approach we need

Unlike the best science fiction, which illuminates and extrapolates troubling realities in imaginative ways, Empathitrax misunderstands and mischaracterizes mental illness as a backdrop for another tedious “will they stay together?” couple melodrama.

And especially given significant suicide rates among people with depressive and other psychiatric disorders, these topics need a responsible approach. Philly theater companies exploring heavy themes (like death or suicide, racism, or abuse) have frequently proven they can notify prospective audiences in a useful, unobtrusive way, and provide a range of resources.

But Bang-Jensen doesn’t even mention mental illness in her director’s note. I’m also not aware of any content notes from PTC, on the press release, the paper and digital playbill, the curtain speech, or in the lobby (in their note, the co-artistic directors merely mention that depression is one “feeling” Empathitrax users can share). I’m likewise not aware of any resources provided (like a support hotline somewhere in the materials, common even in news stories about depression). From Senator Fetterman to PTC ticket-buyers and everyone else, we don’t just deserve better handling of mental illness narratives. We desperately need it.

If you or someone you know is struggling, call or text the national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for resources and support, or find out more online.

What, When, Where

Empathitrax. By Ana Nogueira, directed by Nell Bang-Jensen. $30-$69. Through March 5, 2023, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.


Masks are required at all Friday evening and Sunday matinee performances. Friday evening performances throughout the run are also being sold at a reduced capacity. Masks are optional at all other performances.

The Suzanne Roberts Theatre is an accessible venue, with wheelchair seating available on the orchestra and mezzanine levels. There will be an open-captioned and audio-described performance of Empathitrax on Saturday, March 4, at 2pm.

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