It is no surprise that every seat will be filled at performances of “Under” this weekend. With Yale’s Mental Health and Counseling services at the forefront of campus conversation, a musical production outlining one student’s experience at Yale-New Haven seems well-timed.
“Under” is the fictional story of Serena, a purple-haired, dramatically dressed sophomore at Yale, who is admitted to the psychiatric ward of Yale-New Haven Hospital. In the two hours that follow, the audience watches Serena, played by Michaela Murphy ’17, tackle the consequences of being asked to leave Yale “effective immediately.” Through flashbacks, we witness her life before hospitalization, the struggles of her friends and her desperate desire to be noticed. In the psychiatric ward, we see her bond with Billy — another psychiatric patient, played by Aaron McAleavey ’18 — flourish. With Billy, Serena tracks her own path to the psychiatric ward, through mania and depression and through friendship and failed relationship.
For anyone who has witnessed or experienced mental illness, Murphy’s performance is deeply moving. Her portrayal of Serena is honest, real and all-encompassing. It must not be easy to spend every day of the rehearsal process in the mindset of someone who is suffering so intensely. It was difficult to walk away from the Morse Crescent Theater not in awe of her bravery as an actress, or the bravery of the entire ensemble. The script, by Monica Hannush ’16, is demanding. The issue is not light, and the connections to Yale are impossible to escape.
Upon entry to the theater, audience members will look at a series of projections showing the Yale Health building. In musical numbers, composed by Julian Drucker ’16, cast members sing about walking on Cross Campus, being bombarded with invitations to be a FOOT leader or sign a petition. Then, as each scene awkwardly transitions into the next, time lapses of Yale’s campus are projected on to the back wall of the theater. The time lapses are recent — you wouldn’t be alone if you saw yourself or someone you recognized on the screen in front of you. Technical difficulties with the time lapses did hinder the performance I saw, making transitions a little too long and awkward, and the accompanying music started to feel repetitive. However, when a production is grounded in the college setting, it does not have to be a perfectly slick Broadway affair.
In an interview earlier this week, Hannush said, although based on personal experiences, the characters no longer reflect real life. However, there are moments when it seems a little too close to reality.
Hannush spent time in the psychiatric ward, taking a leave of absence around the same time as Serena. And, at one point, Serena says, “When I show this play to people, I’ll be the most vulnerable I’ve ever been.” With Hannush sitting in the room, I can’t help thinking that the line is her voice talking, not Serena’s. Whatever the story’s grounding in reality, Hannush’s willingness to be vulnerable with her peers, and a sold-out audience every night this weekend, is commendable.
The portrayal of mental health is striking in its honesty. As said in the first scene, the line between crazy and normal cannot be defined as a binary. Hannush attacks the social stigma against people with mental illness head-on. This play does not shy away from the issues facing Yale students with mental illness. But the portrayal of mental health isn’t the scariest bit of seeing “Under.” It is where the play is placed that causes the greatest discomfort. It’s the familiar images of sunny Cross Campus, the Twin XL bed, or the Intro Psych textbook on the desk. It is those images, overlaid with the haunting experience of someone we could know.
There is no easy way to talk about mental health. That is something that, as Yale students, we have all learnt in the recent weeks and months. Everyone’s experience is different, and there is rarely one right way to approach the subject. “Under” is one story in a wider conversation. There are moments in the play — when Serena is asked to leave Yale, or when she describes the psychiatric ward as being “locked up” — when I worried. I worry that someone will come to this play and fear asking for help. I worry that someone will see the struggles of Serena, so rooted in a Yale reality, and refuse to see that getting help can be the answer. That is not the fault of the play. It is a very real, inherent fear among a large portion of the current student body that Yale is a dangerous place to ask for help.
Even though Hannush’s play is intense in its content, director Alex Cadena ’17 has keeps the play from becoming wholly dark. From bright lighting and creative costumes to larger musical numbers, Cadena interweaves the moving narrative with an exciting and theatrically interesting background. As a final slide on the projection shows, Hannush’s piece is dedicated to those who did not find help in time. I hope it’s a message that translates to its audiences.
Whatever reaction “Under” may receive, Hannush and Drucker must be commended in their attempts to tell this story. It is still growing and evolving, and there are things that may need work — but this is a play that is appearing at the right time. It will raise a lot of questions, and maybe also spark some answers.