YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Is It Theater--or Therapy?

April 03, 1989|LYNN HEFFLEY

I n a pool of dim light on a small stage, a stout, middle-aged man, his balding head crowned with a monkish fringe, kneels on a tiny wooden platform. His round face breaks into a grin; he speaks, incongruously, in the lisping tones of a child:

"My daddy can't hit me today; he got a finger cut off at work."

Audience laughter, sharply expelled, momentarily breaks the tense silence at the Santa Monica Playhouse.

Shane McCabe, who suffered a childhood of systematic physical abuse at the hands of his father, is telling it all in "No Place Like Home," a one-man litany of broken bones, burns, blood, innocence and tentative hope.

After the play, members of the audience approach the actor. One man has difficulty speaking; McCabe takes his hand. Nearby, others are looking over stacks of help-resource material for abuse victims.

The audience flinches as a slight young member of a fictional self-help group for adult survivors of incest discharges her anger at her violator in explosive bursts, striking a torn, vinyl couch with a plastic bat. The noise is an aural assault.

\f7 At the Powerhouse Theatre, in "Shattered Secrets" by incest survivor and playwright Libbe S. HaLevy, group members "share" experiences of sexual abuse by parents, brothers and cousins.

During the play's violent climax, the group almost self-destructs in a shocking loss of control.

After the play, HaLevy talks to the audience; at one point she suggests that "perpetrators" of incest be brought to see it. With the loud buzz of angry response and bitter laughter it becomes clear that many in the audience are themselves victims.

One woman asks in a troubled voice if all therapy groups were like the one in the play--"I wouldn't feel safe," she says.

Emotional responses to live theater are nothing new. But these two modest plays, evoking intense audience reaction and marked interest among psychotherapy professionals, suggest that the drama is carried offstage as well.

And so artistic responsibility becomes a central issue.

The playwrights consider themselves artists; they view their work as theater, not therapy, despite autobiographical roots. McCabe says that it is not the artist's "obligation" to worry about the emotional state of the audience.

Yet both playwrights have decided to address the needs of their audiences. HaLevy leads post-performance discussions; McCabe stands outside the theater after his show because "people need to talk to me, to touch me."

The blurring of the theater/therapy line here is undeniable: Some audience members are bringing their therapists; some therapists send their patients.

Drama critics have had mixed opinions ("I had one critic say ('Shattered Secrets') wasn't a play," HaLevy snaps). So have psychology professionals.

Dr. Cheryl Breitenbach, project co-director (with Susan Edelstein) of UCLA's graduate Interdisciplinary Training Program in Child Abuse and Neglect, used "No Place Like Home" as education for faculty and graduate students in law, medicine and social work.

"McCabe offers a good balance between adult and child perspectives," Breitenbach says. "People working this issue out could find validation in his play to break the abuse cycle."

Licensed counselor Linda Barone and partner Dr. Llynn Steinberg, who conduct an abuse survivor group at the Los Angeles Women's Therapy Center, took patients to "No Place Like Home."

"The play," Barone says, "brought up memories in a lot of people who had not been able to access those memories prior to seeing it."

Barone drops the professional verbiage to add, "You don't see (what McCabe does on stage) in therapy. You may see someone spill his guts, but you won't see it presented so incredibly through a child's eyes."

But that vivid theatricality worries M. K. Gustinella, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor and publisher of "Beyond Survival," a magazine for and about survivors of abuse and neglect.

Gustinella feels that "Shattered Secrets" sheds important light on incest, but "the play isn't representative of a safe (therapy) group.

"The pain and confusion are characterized (so strongly), I wouldn't recommend our patients go without their therapists. . . . Staying contained is difficult for them; triggered, unprocessed memories can be overwhelming."

Conversely, Craig Lockwood, editor of "Beyond Survival," thinks both plays are vital tools to raise public consciousness.

"People worry about nuclear arms as a danger to society," he says, "but that danger is far outweighed by the (social) breakdown created by abuse."

Dorothy Baldwin Satten, a specialist in psychodrama at the Westwood Institute of Psychodrama and Psychotherapy in Beverly Hills, has not seen either play, but approves of the idea of publicly putting "some responsibility where it belongs"--with the perpetrators.

However, Satten is also concerned that people in a non-clinical setting can be emotionally over-burdened. That could be mitigated, she says, "if audiences can share feelings stirred up by the pieces."

Los Angeles Times Articles