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Stopping Traffic

Mary Pat Gleason's courageous solo show details her struggle with bipolar disorder. logo
Mary Pat Gleason in Stopping Traffic
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
"People have been telling me to shut up since I was four," Mary Pat Gleason announces the minute she walks onto Neil Patel's black-trimmed, three-sided box set on the stage of the Vineyard Theater, home of her courageous new solo show, Stopping Traffic. The fiftyish, solid Gleason immediately makes it clear that she's not going to start buttoning her lip now that she's confronting an audience. Instead, she will use the vaguely confined environment -- which lighting designer David Weiner lends the changeable aspects of a mood ring -- as a confessional.

Gleason talks primarily about her moods shifting like a weathervane in a high wind. After chatting some about her Minnesota childhood and her early days spent seeking Manhattan show-biz gigs, she gets right to her theme: mental illness. She's afflicted with bipolar disorder, something she only learned after she'd been in New York City for a while and an unrequited love affair with an alcoholic fell apart. The disorder is one that many other performers would not care to broadcast; trying to land movie, television and stage roles is hard enough without producers and directors becoming skittish about one's mental health.

After arriving in Manhattan with musical comedy stars in her eyes and paying rent by walking dogs and cleaning houses, Gleason landed a part on The Guiding Light that stretched into a longish stint. Graduating from the cast to script editor, she remained in place -- even collecting an Emmy for her troubles -- until the urge to return to acting struck her. She moved to Los Angeles and began building an impressive resume that now includes films like Traffic, Basic Instinct, and Lorenzo's Oil, not to mention such TV shows as Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City. She's one of those character actors whose face is familiar even if her name isn't.

Once Gleason begins to talk of her Lithium usage and her L. A. mood swings, she concentrates on how she and a handful of loyal family members and friends handled the ensuing complications. (Most of these people are identified by their real first names and, sometimes, their real surnames.) She mentions that she ran afoul of a movie agent who backed away from sending her up for parts on the pretext that any failure of hers could reflect on his entire client list.

Her inability to emote during a difficult scene in the film version of The Crucible, which was directed by a notably sympathetic Nicholas Hytner, serves as the crucial episode in Gleason coming to grips with her nagging medical condition. How she pulls through her assignment as Arthur Miller's staunch Martha Corey without ever claiming that she's finally put every trouble behind her gives the aria its dramatic arc. There's the suggestion of a victory but also the lingering possibility that she has no clean-bill-of-health guarantee.

Stopping Traffic is directed by Lonny Price, who has Gleason constantly on the go. She hardly ever stands or sits still at the upstage table or the high-backed chair and stool that serve as the only furniture on stage, and this has a paradoxical effect. In a monologue about a woman living through manic episodes, a manic atmosphere threatens to take hold. The staging may have arisen from the perceived need to keeps things hopping rather than allowing them to become static, or it may be meant to echo Gleason's prevailing state of mind. If the latter is the case, it's not Price's wisest choice. While it's commendable that she's refusing to shut up, she might benefit from some more time spent sitting down.

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