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Rachael VanWormer delivers a visceral performance in Lit Alive’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

by Cassiopeia Guthrie, Dec. 7, 2022

Her grasp on reality is tenuous - or is it? Actor Rachael VanWormer toes the line and then vaults over it unapologetically in a fresh, dramatic delivery of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” playing through Dec. 10 at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center.

The story, which is delivered in 7 scenes and directed by Veronica Murphy, shows the gradual progression of depression and delusions that plague the female character as told through her journal entries. The narrator, who is a writer by trade, has recently delivered a baby and is on a health holiday with her husband, physician John, to a countryside manor. Relegated to the top floor alone to recover from diagnosed hysteria and episodes, the character’s ideas for her own recovery are quickly dismissed. Instead, at every turn, she finds her experiences, beliefs, and desires undermined by an overbearing husband. She must sleep as much as possible, he says, remain detached from other family members who might disrupt her progress, and refrain from writing. He loves her, he insists; her perspective is irrational and uninformed. After all, as a physician, he knows best.

A woman looks up at wall
Rachel VanWormer in The Yellow Wallpaper. Photo credit: Lit Alive.

A good amount of the story focuses on physical aspects of the space that she occupies, including the bolted down bed frame, the bars on the windows and hooks on the wall, and specifically the yellow patterned wallpaper. Trapped for her own good in a former nursery enrobed head to toe in the hue, the narrator becomes increasingly vitriolic about damage that she perceives has been caused by the former youth occupants (spoiler alert: some of it appears even as she is alone in the room…).

Even moreso, she obsesses about the wallpaper: its design, its color scheme, its flaws, and its odor. With nothing else to occupy her time and an utter lack of agency to support her own recovery, she begins to fill her time by teasing out the geometric elements in the pattern. Weeks pass, and the geometric elements become swirls, lines, a broken neck, until ultimately revealing themselves to be a woman actively trying to extricate herself from prison bars via images embedded in the walls. The descent into symbolism is palpable.

VanWormer is stunning in the role. Her command of the character is bewitching, down to the twitchy mannerisms in her hands and her facial grimaces. As the character’s hold on what is real and what is not unravels, VanWormer begins to exhibit increasingly more unusual behaviors and, in turn, the clues embedded throughout the story begin to re-materialize and explain themselves.

And, while VanWormer's athleticism, emotional range, and detail-oriented nuance in a postage-stamp sized theatre are to be commended, ultimately, it is her depiction of a woman striving to "deserve" her gaslighting partner while embattled with the disenfranchisement of her own mental health journey that is so striking. There is a terrifying realness in how she teases out her husband’s developed ethos to justify the toxic aspects of her marriage and ignores evidence just in front of her face instead. In a time when gaslighting happens at all levels from homes to government buildings and disinformation and patriarchal power dynamics continue to thrive, this 1892 piece of literature, presented through a dramatic lens, remains eerie, exquisite, and frighteningly current.

Even the venue is appropriate - what better place for Lit Alive to house a show about isolation than on the 4th floor of a reputedly haunted building on Tenth Avenue? At least until this Saturday when it must close, that is.

program shown in front of a stage with a bed, table, chair, and changing screen


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