A scene from The Yellow Wallpaper(Photo: Joshua Sliwa)
A scene from The Yellow Wallpaper
(Photo: Joshua Sliwa)
My childhood compulsion to stare obsessively at uneven tile patterns seems less strange now; that quirk has nothing on the fixation depicted in The Yellow Wallpaper. Theater Schmeater's new play is based on a short story by the 19th century author, intellectual, and activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, inspired by Gilman's brief period of mental illness and the strict cure imposed upon her.

In the play, Charlotte (Mary Jane Gibson) experiences a post-partum melancholy that is aggravated by the treatment administered by her physician husband, John (Stephen Loch). In her madness, she focuses on the pattern of the hideous wallpaper in her cure room. Although we may have come far in terms of the civil rights that Gilman advocated, some of the protagonist's humbling moments of forced treatment still ring true.

Adapter-director Heather Newman has a certain amount of trouble in extracting a play from Gilman's story; sometimes, the The Yellow Wallpaper verges on becoming an intellectual exercise. The first 20 minutes of the piece are monologue driven and the actors seem to be going through the motions. Fortunately, by the end of Act I, the production solidifies as Newman's staging locates the story's real drama and the relationships of the characters begin to engage us. The charming friendship between Charlotte and her servant Mary (Lisa Viertel) is the most clearly forged; these two share a slumber party moment right out of a teen movie when they sneak a cigarette. Somehow, it works.

Mary Jane Gibson's well crafted Charlotte is vital to the production. Oddly, the actress is better at portraying the character's great intellect and awareness of her own repression during her periods of madness than in the few moments when we see Charlotte in good health. In her more crazed states, Charlotte displays an ability to find meaning in almost everything, including the pattern of her wallpaper. Throughout, we can follow Charlotte's mental state through her eyes. Indeed, the character's insanity is so convincingly physicalized by Gibson that, at one point, she seems on the verge of flying.

The other shining performance is given by Annie Lareau as Jennie, Charlotte's jealous and conflicted sister-in-law, who cannot understand why her brother's wife has been called away from the domestic sphere. She seems to relish treating the ill Charlotte like a child, but her portrayal is nuanced enough to humanize what could have been a thoroughly cruel figure.

Both of the male actors -- Loch as John and James Catechi as the doctor who originates the treatment -- lack the inner life of the women, though this may be an accurate reflection of the roles they're playing. As Charlotte descends into madness, her husband is far less concerned with her than with his own career; he is convinced that she is improving even as she visibly deteriorates. In the name of making her well, he ends up stripping away her once powerful convictions.

Newman communicates the play's theme best in her use of actresses as silhouettes behind the wallpaper, suggesting that all of these women are somehow trapped. This play is not just about the repression of women but about the life of the mind and the depths revealed as it unravels. By maximizing the effectivieness of Katherine Davis's spare scenery, Newman carries out Theater Schmeater's mission to "create great plays simply." The wallpaper is appropriately ugly enough to drive a sane person crazy in time, and the human silhouettes are the most evocative set pieces.

Elegantly choreographed by Michele Steinwald, the play ends in a way that could be interpreted as indicating empowerment or a final undoing, but Gilman's real life recovery suggests the former. This is a graceful, intriguing production.