February 24th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

I sat down next to Barbara Becker when all of us (Raymond, playwrights, actors, and directors) were meeting to discuss how Little Box would work. She was kind enough to move her papers and let me sit. I was struck by her genuine nature, she is a lovely person. She is also an attractive person who is quite fit. I was therefore surprised, after the Little Box meeting, to see her stand up and limp around: well, not just limp, it is a serious impediment. This brings us to her play.

As described by Becker herself in the Little Box description:

Ictus is a journey through a foreign country and through the world of catastrophic illness. An athletic, healthy, thirty-five year old woman experiences a severe stroke or brain attack while traveling through Italy on vacation. In seconds her life is derailed. Unable to speak or swallow and paralyzed she must find a way to put her life back together as she struggles through rehabilitation of her paralyzed body. The brain is the center of the self. How do you put your life back together if everything that makes you you is damaged or out of commission?

Ictus is derived from the Latin, icere “to strike with a weapon” and one can almost hear a warrior boasting, “I brought him down with one fell stroke…” such is what happened to Becker, as she ably demonstrates in her work.

The stroke happened while she was in Italy, far from any hospital. One of the daunting statements, and I hope I’m getting it right, is that a portion of your brain the size of a pea dies every 5 minutes that the brain is denied blood and oxygen. It was 5 hours before she got to a hospital that could treat her. As she notes in her play, “that’s a lot of peas.”

Thematically, the trip to Italy works very much in Becker’s favor, as does her constant use of Italian throughout. The trip to Italy and our trip through her stroke work off each other to show the foreign character of the experience: you are not in world that you know anymore; the things you took for granted are no longer things that you may assume, everything is foreign now.

Ictus stars Laurel Brooke Johnson who’s seen some movie and tv work. She does a fantastic job demonstrating the physical difficulties faced by Becker: walking, speaking, struggling to stand, etc. And does a compelling job demonstrating the anguish and frustration that surely must have dominated, and still must dominate, Becker’s daily life. Johnson also has a blog.

Structurally, the play presents a linear timeline of events that take up at least a year, from the trip’s promising start in Italy to her return home from the Cleveland Clinic. It is framed by a timeless space in which Johnson (Becker) examines five or six pairs of shoes set on chairs about the stage. These shoes are from her own life and represent events and stages of her life: running shoes she wore in marathons, dress shoes for various occasions, etc., all the phases of her past life: her once normal life. The final frame sees her in the same place: shoes all around, but this time a new pair have been added: the right shoe larger than the left (presumably for a brace). One thing I found neat was the physiological, if you will, examination of the shoes—the wear patterns—how these changed. It was done at both the beginning of the play and at the end. What was most striking was the final analysis where the pinky toe area of the right shoe is examined: it shows wear—where dragging it across a floor has caused excessive damage.

I am reminded here of my one time next door neighbor as a boy: Mike Stout. Mike had been impacted by polio as a boy and one of his legs (and subsequently his foot) was smaller than the other. He too had to purchase shoes of the same style but in different sizes for each foot. I always wondered at this. Wondered at how one would go about purchasing shoes in this way: did he have a special shoe store that he went to? Or did he have to explain at every store why he wanted to break apart a perfectly good pair? Or did he have to buy two pairs, knowing he would never use two of the shoes?

I think the framing device works to great effect. I think the linear portion works fine, too, but at times it is a bit of a strain—as the audience member is going through highly narrated events in a point-by-point way. There is great potential for dead time here and, in fact, there are points that the piece drags—either the rhythm/pacing needs to be examined or something needs shortened. However, these faults are ably compensated in theatrical ways: for instance, a projector and screen is used as a visual aid to many segments that have the effect of adding energy to the piece. For instance, right after the stroke Becker is forced to write everything (as she cannot speak) and the projector shows, in tremulous scrawl, the words she puts on the pad of paper. There are other comic points, too: when they are testing her ability to recognize objects and emotions and she is asked “is this man happy or sad” and the projected picture is an absurd fellow with a smile that seems as much gas as genuine emotion. There are other elements of staging that add energy to the presentation as well.

Overall, I like this piece and I think Becker deserves a lot of credit for putting up what is extremely personal and her equally personal ruminations on the event. Her examination is insightful and elements are cautionary: value what you have. This is made more poignant, I think, by the fact that she is so young and this happened; yet the reality is that many of us will face something similar in our own lives—as aging and the decline of the body is a fact each of us faces.

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