Oftentimes it is the sheer surface simplicity of art that enables it to strike a resonant tone within the audience. Tuesday Night Theater (TNC)’s production of the The Yellow Wallpaper, based off of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s haunting 1892 short story, brilliantly demonstrates this phenomenon. On the surface, TNC’s rather frugal production, which presents a largely unadulterated version of Gilman’s story, may come off as overly simplistic; however, smart and creative choices in stage design, lighting, and costuming as well as powerful acting stand as a testament to the production’s outstanding performance. Its simplicity allows the issues of gender inequality to come to the fore easily, captivating the audience just as the short story did in 1892.
The Yellow Wallpaper provides a historical snapshot of popular—but skewed—notions surrounding the medical and professional treatment of women during the 19th century. It highlights a woman’s descent into madness as she is subjected to the popular treatment for mental illness at the time, Dr. S Weir Mitchell’s infamous ‘rest cure.’ Though Dr. Mitchell’s treatment called for the near-complete cessation of mental and physical stimuli, TNC’s production of Gilman’s classic presents us with an abundance of both such things that intelligently makes the audience feel the error of the Victorian Age.
While walking into the theatre, the ominous presence of yellow-tinged insanity begins to impart its subtle effects on the viewer. The entirety of the stage is designed in such a way that the audience is not merely viewing the characters acting within the confines of a separate yellow-wallpapered room, but actually within the room itself, surrounded on all sides by a creeping yellow glow. This decision, coupled with purposefully placed deviations in the largely consistent yellow pattern, is instrumental in enabling the audience to mirror, to some extent, the exact emotions of curiosity and suffocation undergone by the play’s narrator as a result of the wallpaper. The lighting design, coordinated by Louis Ramirez and Hayley Brown, nicely complements the atmosphere generated through the set by appropriately and dynamically changing the lighting according to the tension of the scene.
The eeriness of the great set design is matched by the equally hair-raising performances of Connor Spencer and Rachel Stone. Stone, calmly enacting the narrator’s more submissive tendencies with her slow and often blank-faced line delivery, and Spencer, spastically fidgeting out the narrator’s growing mental instability with intense eye movements and incessant scratching, both play the divided consciousness of the narrator as she struggles to cope with the pressures of solitary confinement. Their respective costumes brilliantly highlight this dichotomy between the two, as Stone sports a more traditional, homey orange sweater and skirt combo while Spencer wears a pair of white button-down jeans and a white headband that are subtly reminiscent of a psychiatric ward. While there were occasional slip-ups in line delivery, none were substantial enough to detract from the overall experience.
The chemistry between the two actors is really brought out by director Grace Jackson’s meticulous emphasis on the positioning of the two. At the outset of the play—a time when the narrator’s sanity is relatively intact—the two are constantly placed opposite from one another on stage and maintain this mirror image in what serves to clearly illustrate a mental separation between the two. However, the end of the play increasingly places the two characters placed side by side, often delivering the same lines together, in what symbolizes an unfortunate union of insanity.
Although TNC’s production of The Yellow Wallpaper doesn’t break any new ground and rarely deviates from the traditional plot, it still delivers a powerful message in its quick hour-long runtime, which results in a short, sweet, and to the point production.
The Yellow Wallpaper runs from Wednesday, Jan. 14 to Saturday, Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. at Tuesday Night Cafe Theatre (3485 McTavish). Student/senior tickets are 6$ and adult tickets are 10$.