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In Anatomy of a Suicide, Family Legacy Lives in the Past, Present, and Future

Alice Birch writes a clamorous symphony of inherited trauma for three generations of women in her new play at Atlantic Theater Company.

Carla Gugino as Carol, Ava Briglia as young Anna, and Celeste Arias as adult Anna in Alice Birch's Anatomy of a Suicide, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater.
(© Ahron R. Foster)

Family legacy is a difficult thing to trace, and an even more difficult thing to dramatize. With that in mind, Alice Birch deserves points for both bravery and invention in her new play Anatomy of a Suicide, now having its US premiere at Atlantic Theater Company.

Rather than having her three represented generations of women patiently await their next turn onstage, Birch throws them all into the soup at once. Three scenes, three timelines, and three emotional crises unfold simultaneously for the majority of the one-hour-and-45-minute production — a trim running time that certainly reaps the benefits of these overlapping dialogues. But can minds and adrenal glands handle such a cacophony of input? That is the main question your agitated brain will be sorting through on your way home from the Linda Gross Theater. The answer may very well be different for every person who goes through the trying obstacle course this play assembles, but the answer for me and my ringing head was a resounding no.

To clarify exactly how this is all orchestrated (a work of scientific precision by director Lileana Blain-Cruz), the stage is sectioned off into thirds (Mariana Sanchez designing the full stage like a cavernous house encasing all three timelines). On the left, we have Carol (Carla Gugino), a woman battling depression and suicidal impulses in the 1970s who decides, along with her helpless husband John (Richard Topol), to have a child as an incentive to remain among the living world.

Julian Elijah Martinez (Jamie) and Celeste Aria (Anna).
(© Ahron R. Foster)

That brings us to center stage where we find Carol's now-grown daughter Anna (Celeste Arias), a young woman haunted by similar demons, which, in her case, manifest as a self-destructive drug addiction. Like her mother, she predicts a baby will be her lodestar — a faulty assumption that, as the play's title threatens, does not prevent the tragedy that seems to be a foregone conclusion for the women in this family.

Continuing this vicious cycle, however, also seems to be a foregone conclusion — which leads us to Bonnie (Gabby Beans), Anna's now-grown daughter who plays out her own uncertain future house right, laden with all the baggage of the women that came before her and a determination to resist the patterns of her matriarchal line.

All three of these women are giving beautiful, complex performances with nuanced depictions of depression and the inner turmoil that eventually compels someone to suicide. Perhaps if Gugino, Arias, and Beans were less brilliant, it wouldn't be as frustrating to have to choose which one of them to listen to at any given moment. All at once, Carol has a revelation about how the love of a child cannot fill a spiritual void; while Anna divulges details of her childhood to the man who will one day be her husband and father of her own child (a character named Jamie, played by Julian Elijah Martinez); while Bonnie (a nurse) talks over the death of a patient with her surgeon coworker Tim (Jason Babinsky) and has a tellingly anti-maternal interaction with his daughter (an impressively self-possessed Ava Briglia).

Occasionally, one scene is allowed to have our full attention. But more often than not, three equally significant exchanges are unfurling and our eyes and ears have to make a choice — usually at the expense of valuable information and, because of the constantly split focus, always at the expense of dramatic punch (sound designer Rucyl Frison, however, deserves special commendation for her achievement in making everything perfectly audible through all the crosstalk).

A dramatic achievement that I will grant this unorthodox format is that it is as unapologetic as the swirl of dissonant thoughts that can drown a person in feelings of hopelessness. It's also as ungraspable as the search for answers in a family lineage. Sometimes words overlap or moments align, and the links that connect mother to daughter to granddaughter seem to reveal themselves in perfect clarity. And then another important moment flies by your bleary mind, and you wonder what puzzle pieces have been lost to time — or more crucially, what warning signs did you miss as they sped past?

Carla Gugino (Carol), Jo Mei (Lola), Celeste Arias (Anna), Gabby Beans (Bonnie), and Miriam Silverman (Esther) in a scene from Anatomy of a Suicide, running through March 15.
(© Ahron R. Foster)