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Theater Review:

"SOME VOICES" at Profiles Theatre


Mental illness provides fertile dramatic ground for many playwrights. At the same time, the portrayal of severe mental challenges can be a slippery slope for actors. They must make their characters believable and multidimensional rather than succumbing to the temptation of "playing crazy," In British playwright Joe Penhall’s 1994 drama, "Some Voices" – receiving its Chicago premiere at Profiles Theatre – his main character, Ray, suffers from schizophrenia but tries to cope after being released from an institution.

We first meet Ray staring blankly into space as he plays with a "Slinky." Then we gradually witness his erratic eruptions into defiance, neediness, bad judgment, passion, nihilism and a vague sense of redemption. As Ray, Darrell W. Cox – often associated with heavy-hitting roles that demand a brash physicality – sympathetically unveils the unpredictable emotional layers of mental illness without manipulating the audience’s emotions. This is no small task, considering that – in addition to altering his voice to a higher British pitch – Cox must toggle between appearing somewhat normal and lucid, then downspiraling into fits of flustered and fidgety incoherence as the voices in his head pummel his psyche.

Penhall’s play, however, tends to fall back on a conventional story line. The ending especially feels pat and cheery. Set in present-day London, "Some Voices" tracks Ray’s determination to adjust to ordinary life without taking his medication. He is placed in the care of his restaurateur brother, Pete, who vacillates between being his brother’s keeper and misguidedly telling his troubled sibling to pull himself together.

Ray soon falls in love with a resilient pregnant woman, Laura, who is viciously abused by her obsessive ex-boyfriend, Dave. He first encounters Laura unexpectedly in the street moments before Dave is about to deliver another beating. Ray takes Dave’s punches instead. The relationship between Ray and Laura is tender but undeveloped from the playwright’s perspective. Although Ray is probably the only man who has treated Laura with respect, it comes as a surprise that Laura did not realize the severity of his illness. However she, like Pete to an extent, has probably deluded herself into believing that mental illness can be neatly controlled – like a cold or sprained ankle.

The playwright also weaves in the obligatory ranting lunatic, Ives, an old man who spent time in the institution with Ray and ends up sleeping in alleys upon his release. The overblown quality of Ives undermines the care Penhall takes to show the more elusive sides of Ray.

As expected, Ray is forced to encounter Dave again. The outcome is not pretty. And, from that point on, the play takes on an accelerated tone of predictable climax and resolution – leading to that uncomfortably tidy ending (even if we are never quite sure how long Ray’s seeming contentment will last). Penhall also tosses in the usual gibes at the yuppies who congregate at Pete’s hip eatery.

But there are moments of witty enlightenment in this ultimately moving play. Ray speaks of how he’s often been in a state of leaving or arriving. His emotionally torn brother reflects on the richly metaphoric statement of how "things change when you disappear." And Penhall raises vital questions of whether getting psychological help means obtaining genuine, loving help or being an anonymous source for "investigating the mind."

Director Patrick Wilkes approaches the work with a deft and sensitive touch, which prevents the production from being a tour de force of scenery chewing. Cox stands out for the sheer range and blistering complexity of Ray. He is graciously paired with Sara Maddox as the strong-willed Laura, whose character struggles with her own low sense of self-worth. Thankfully, Maddox never plays Laura as a hapless victim. Joe Jahraus delivers a measured, if not entirely comfortable, performance as Pete. Only Jim Jarvis’ hyper-crazed Dave and Bill Brennan’s consciously loopy Ives get wedged into the stifling realm of cliché.

Jahraus has devised a malleable set – a series of cage-like pillars, which suggest the bars of an institution, the rusty industrial wasteland of the homeless and the confining recesses of Ray’s mind.•

"Some Voices" runs through April 28 at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets: $18-$22. Call 773-549-1815 or log onto

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