Reviewed by Joseph Conway
There are many reasons to whisper. Telling a secret, for example, is a fine way to utilize a whisper. Trying not to be disruptive in a library is another great use of a whisper. In Sibyl Renaye’s “This Is Why I Whisper” however, whispering is used to cut through the cacophonous clamor of a schizophrenic’s illusory voices and help calm him down. Bet you never thought a whisper could be used like that.
Sibyl Renaye – the playwright – should receive praise for selflessly handing the world a dramatization of, what we learn, is the story of her family and her brother’s lifelong plight. The story is a strong one albeit a lackluster retelling. At its core, “This Is Why I Whisper” is comedic and occasionally touching with its serious, if muddled, message of acceptance of the mentally ill.
The story revolves around three sisters trying to figure out what to do with their schizophrenic brother after the untimely death of their mother. The central figure in the plot, Perry, played by Michael Gilbert, is plagued by voices driving him deeper into insanity. Sadly, Perry’s actions are very measured and precise, speaking of a very well practiced actor and not a tragically insane man. His actions wound up being so over the top as to be unbelievable, a trait that utterly destroys any drama inherent in the role. Worse, this sense of timing actually makes Perry into a funny character, turning his illness into a cheap laugh.
Thankfully, the lead role of Elissa, played by Rasheda Crockett, does a much better job of portraying the sad reality of caring for a family member who is beyond your help. She also provides ample comic timing in the plays funnier scenes. Her two sisters also wind up keeping the mood light and pleasant onstage. One sister, the rich and haughty Lauren, played by Catherine Cushenberry, is sadly one dimensional. The character literally does nothing but sass everyone else on stage and exhibits absolutely zero redeeming qualities whatsoever. She reminded me of Hilary Banks in a cheesy 90s sitcom more than anything else. Her lines are sufficiently humorous, but she has no depth at all. Camille, the other sister played by Celiné Justice, has more depth, but less humor, ultimately letting her come out ahead. Altogether, the trio of sisters does a capable job of making the audience laugh, even if two of them can come off as unrepentantly cold.
The show takes a turn for the hilarious when the sublimely talented Keith H. Henley takes the stage as Uncle Cecil. Keith, who I swear was channeling Fred Sanford’s greatest hits, succeeds in completely stealing the spotlight every single second he’s on stage! His acting and characterization are even strong enough to give his wife Ruth credibility, even if she never actually appears in the show.
While Cecil was outrageous, the show became noticeably terrible once the police showed up on scene. The cops, played by Jeffrey A. Wisniewski and Steven Anabotti, respectively, act as little more than momentary villains in the tale. The same two actors play mental patients in the very next scene, and I must note that it was rather jarring to have the only two white guys in the cast acting as mean police officers and crazy patients.
It was the portrayal of the mental patients that really irked me. No, not irked, that word is too soft. Appalled is better. I was appalled and offended by the portrayal of the mentally ill in this show. When Elissa is sitting in the psych intake unit, waiting to see her brother Perry, the two other patients are pretty much paraded in front of the audience as mere comic relief. There is a notable dissonance between this sight and the doctors own monologue, which stresses how there’s still such a stigma about mental illness and we should all be more accepting and less afraid of it. I agree with that point. I only wish that Eugene Daniels, the good doctor in question, had a less subdued attitude about the whole thing to give his lines the impact they deserve.
Taking it for what it’s worth, “This Is Why I Whisper” is a fairly funny show plagued by occasional shallowness and a complete and utter failure to deliver on its core message. The show wants to promote understanding of mental illness, then parades the ill about like circus freaks. The show aims to promote family values triumphing over all in the end, but fails to address Elissa’s obvious and severe co-dependence. It’s a genuine shame that such positive and endearing messages could be torn down by simple missteps and misunderstandings. The true crime here isn’t any lack of talent or skill, but in the way such simple Monday-night-sitcom comedy only serves to perpetuate the myths and fears about mental illness.
Joseph Conway is a classically-trained artist and celebrated writer and critic. He is known for his reviews of operas performed throughout the greater metropolitan area.