An upcoming senior project in Theater Studies will use absurdism and black comedy to tell a tale of love and death.
“Gibel,” an original play by Ben Symons ’15, opens Thursday night at the Off Broadway Theater. The play follows Reggie, a suicide hotline worker whose job is to encourage his callers to follow through on their plans to take their own lives. The business runs smoothly until he picks up a call from a woman named Mary, and a romantic connection is formed between the two. Symons described the issue of mental health that the play explores as a problem that can be kept under control by communities that are dedicated to addressing it.
“I want people to come away from this seeing that this is an issue that can be treated,” Symons said. “This is a play where everyone is wrong about the problems they are facing.”
Symons highlighted the absurdist element within the play, which reverses the traditional purpose of suicide hotlines: to prevent callers from taking their own lives. He said the concept of reversing the role intrigued him, because it allowed him to explore a world he was unfamiliar with and because such a setting allowed him to address the play’s central themes through a non-conventional but serious approach.
Tom Stilwell ’16, who plays Reggie, said the production was an extensive exercise in separating himself in real life from who he becomes in the rehearsal space. Stilwell emphasized the dedication required to explore Reggie’s twisted and unfamiliar mind, adding that he has occasionally struggled with the task of returning to his normal self outside of rehearsal. One of the biggest difficulties was picking up the phone and having a normal conversation, he explained.
Stilwell also highlighted the difficulty of being unable to physically interact with other actors on stage, explaining that the set’s design as a calling center prevents all non-verbal communication between him and other characters. He noted that he has not been able to look at any of the other actors while on stage.
Symons said the idea for the play stems from his own experience contending with mental health concerns following his junior year at Yale, which led him to fully develop his idea into a full play.
The show’s title comes from an untranslatable Russian word, one that translates most closely to “a painful ceasing to be.”
“It’s a concept you can come to know, but we don’t have a word for it,” Symons said. “It’s interesting to see what other cultures have come to institutionalize as vocabulary.”
But Lily Shoretz ’16, the show’s director, said she hopes the production will bring the sensitive issues the play raises into everyday discussions and contribute to what the ensemble sees as an already thriving conversation among students on and off campus.
“I think there’s sort of an optimistic outlook on it… You’re watching these characters try to figure it out, and I think it goes beyond the issues of suicide or mental illness,” Shoretz said. “I hope it gets people thinking about whether losing one thing is worth losing everything.”
Performances of “Gibel” will run through Saturday.