Changing the world one show at a time.
BOTTOM LINE: Mike wakes up in a hospital bed after trying to forget his identity. Will he slowly remember and balance the various parts of his life, including his Catholicism, homosexuality, cerebral palsy, and love of theater?
Mike (playwright Nicholas Linnehan) is a man who has many identities. He was raised Catholic, tried to be an athlete to please his father (and other handsome men), later realized he was gay, and still later returned to being a practicing Catholic. And he also has cerebral palsy—at age 3, Mike could not walk or talk. This last identity is definitely important—it prompted not only the writing of this play, but also the founding of Linnehan's theater company. Yet Linnehan also makes sure to begin by telling us that he is different. Perhaps that is the point; one cannot necessarily tell that a person has cerebral palsy, and one shouldn't assume that someone with CP will not be able to walk or recite his lines. This is an inclusive theater company; as tactfully posted on the company website, “Why can’t we all PLAY together?”
Identity opens with Mike personably telling the audience that he is retelling his life story. He then climbs into a hospital bed, arms restrained, where he wakes up screaming. A concerned Doctor (Matthew Tyler) tends to Mike, but says he can’t tell him any information about his past. Indeed, Mike signed an agreement asking for this to be done. Mike the narrator then takes turns in and out of the hospital bed introducing us to people from his past. We meet Mike's father (Tim Connell), who spent some time in jail and was brutally molested by a guard. These experiences help explain his future Bible-thumping hatred of gays. Mike's mother (Amy Liszka) is his hero, the one who encouraged him to keep doing school plays when the baseball team rejected him. For a young man with cerebral palsy, Mike tried very hard to fit in, yet able-bodied people could not see him for what he was.
After his parents' divorce, Mike comes home from college to visit. Away from home, Mike acknowledged his true feelings for his boyhood friend, Jack. Through this new sense of love, Mike can now appreciate the "true" teachings of Catholicism, whether or not the people in the church accept him. As a case in point, his father slaps him across the face with a Bible, but Mike turns the other cheek. Later, Mike's mother goes to a Priest (Ben Dworken), who will not listen to her confession until she goes home and makes her marriage work.
With so many conflicting identities, Mike goes to see a therapist. He has a Dreamgirls moment, singing "Look at me. I am changing." Slowly we journey full circle to the beginning of the show. It is not easy for most of us to come to terms with our contradictory wants and needs. Perhaps this is better illustrated by Mike and the cast dancing to "Crucify" by Tori Amos, which is certainly the first sincere performance of the song by a devout Catholic that I have ever witnessed. This production, previously staged by advocates for inclusive theater including Nicu's Spoon, is an enlightening chance to hear one man with CP speaking his truth. Director/Sound Designer Christopher Scott brings much laughter and music to this play. Bravo to all who helped construct the narrative within the narrative wherein it feels safe to be real.
"Some people go to therapy to work out their stuff," Nicholas Linnehan informs at the start of his autobiographical play, Identity. Not him. Instead, "I write plays to fix myself." Before the first scene even starts, his character named Mike is laying bare his emotions for the audience to see. A man with a mild case of cerebral palsy and disarthryic speech, he points out that he is different from us. "And deep down inside, I guess I'm praying I'm really not."
The play opens with Mike restrained on a hospital bed. Why is he there? What has happened? In a series of flashback scenes, the audience is taken on a journey to comprehend, understand and empathize with life as a disabled person. His particular road is made even more difficult as Mike is also a gay man. Admittedly a terrible athlete despite Dad's dreams for baseball glory, he instead found his home run in theater. Thankfully he has shared his trials and tribulations in this original, heartfelt and engrossing confessional.
The fourth wall is broken repeatedly throughout Mr. Linnehan's play. His asides are wry and often hilarious. As a straight "A" ten year old: "by the way, I'm supposed to be much younger now." He stops and asks, "am I giving an Oscar worthy performance here?" The jokes are frequent and effectively draw us in closer to his quirky and playful personality. When he turns serious and peels back yet another layer for us to examine, the drama is vivid and quietly devastating.
Mike is living "in the crack" somewhere between abled and disabled. As a result, he does not feel part of the normal world "if it exists." In a scene loaded with emotional transparency, he wishes for one more affectation of his disease "just to belong." Mike's search for his identity is the basis for this play. What makes this riveting theater is the performance itself. He takes his audience by the hand and does not lecture. He doesn't demand empathy and is occasionally off-putting in his bitterness and self-deprecation. The effect achieved allows us to see a real, imperfect and articulate human being sharing a complicated journey. Identity certainly confronts the hard knocks of growing up but is ultimately a celebration of life and the dreams which give us hope.
At intermission, Mike confided "you are all part of this crazy thing I call a play." The story centers on three key figures from his past: mom, dad and a doctor. Dad (Tim Connell) is largely a one-dimensional tyrant but seems to have been written that way since these scenes are extracted from Mr. Linnehan's memories. Amy Liszka's endearing, chain smoking Mom is the more sympathetic parent but even she struggles with unequivocal love and support. It is no surprise that the Doctor (Matthew Tyler) is perhaps the most important character on this stage. His eyes are our window into the clinical and distancing part of this expressively therapeutic play.
Christopher Scott directed Identity with a loosely informal style but with clearly defined scenes ranging from naturalistic to abstractly provocative. In the small (and quite nice) basement theater at El Barrio Artspace, Mike's parents try to grasp whether their son is happy. His doctor also wonders the same thing. At the end of this memorable tale Mr. Linnehan turns to the audience and asks, "Am I happy?" It's worth your time to find out the answer in this uniquely fascinating work.
Its several hours since I saw Identity and my jaw is still on the ground. It was touching, moving, occasionally confusing, always intriguing and often amazing. With passion, pathos, and wit, Linnehan dexterously moved us in and out of the fourth wall. We were transported with him on his personal journey to answer the question, “Am I happy?” We travel through time and space relieved when he discovers that although he is a bunch of contradictions (a brilliantly/disabled, gay, ardent Catholic) he no longer has to apologize to anyone. And yes, he is happy with his complicated but delightful identity. The actors playing the father, mother and doctor added richness to the complexity of the story with their fabulous acting, complimenting the author’s fast-paced and poignant dialogue. Prepare to be impressed. Different is delicious and delightful entertainment.
"This was amazing."
"Excellent theater with powerful messages."
"Original and unique-heartfelt-personal-poignant and well acted. Really enjoyed it."
"Awesome, highly recommend!"
“There is a lovely rhythm to the writing of the monologue and audience asides.”
“...He addresses the frustration and loneliness that comes from not being disabled enough for some groups yet too disabled for others.”
“...The personal truth which seems to be invoked here feels so real and the charm of our leading man so authentic...”