We've all got problems, and as you know, our problems can seem overwhelming. Here's what I've heard people talking about on the street: Kim Jong Il, global warming, the shootings in The Castro, renegade drivers, and the fact that every fifteen days (on average) someone jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. All this is just the tip of the iceberg, as each of us has to cope with our private problems. Before there was Prozac, how did people cope? Were our problems less weighty in the past?
Jennifer Berry, who wrote and is the sole actor in The Marsh Theater's Big Pharma, believes they weren't less weighty at all. Slipping into her grandmother's voice, Berry explains why, during The Great Depression, a woman carried a white handkerchief: first, she might need to cry; second, tears could sneak up on a friend or stranger, and at such times one wanted to offer comfort. Back before there were pills meant to numb us to sadness we, as a culture, allowed ourselves to experience pain's depths, and from there we could fully recover. Now, says Berry, the pscho-pharmaceutical companies target women in their thirties and convince us that we're in unnecessary pain.
This is certainly food for thought, and it was nice to think it while attending The Marsh Theater, which is located in San Francisco's hip Valencia district. The theater doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside there's a great bar where patrons can buy drinks and baked goods before the performance. Further in, the red vinyl seats that face the stage from three sides are striking in contrast with the black walls and floor. There's something about this stylish, contemporary interior that informs Berry's frightening depiction of a slick drug company representative. Wearing a white lab coat and sturdy glasses, she plays this part with snarky condescension. The audience loved this character in particular, and the commercials she showed for drugs such as Lexapro were, like the representative, easy to watch with irony. Too easy, perhaps.
Berry inhabited a variety of characters as she told their stories. Many of them were said to be old friends of Berry's generation, fellow Gen X-ers who'd gone on medications that suspended their sufferings, rendering their voices airy and flat. The most striking of these characters provides us with a spark of personality the drugs haven't quenched. She is a bi-racial woman named Maria who speaks English with a heavy accent and whose Spanish flies off her tongue. While playing Maria, Berry strides across the stage with a liveliness that seems especially poignant given the idea that Maria was diagnosed as bi-polar. Maria tells us her medication is destroying the dualities that define her.
Berry's stance might not sit well with everyone. Of course her target audience -- women presently in their mid-thirties -- is a skeptical bunch. We're as wary of art's tendency to manipulate as we are of advertisements. Most controversial is how Berry implies that mental illness is a sane reaction to society's ills and an expression of individuality. Yes, it's unconscionable that corporations profit by pushing drugs meant to squelch our feelings. But for some mentally ill people, feelings run so amok that a passing gesture or a coincidence becomes disproportionately sinister. Big Pharma succeeds if we consider that Berry is so obviously channeling her private sadness. Add to that her talent for slipping into character, changing her stance and delivery so that each is very clearly defined. This ability lends her message some credence.
Berry reiterates her case in the end of Big Pbarma when, in a voice shaky with age, she quietly relates her grandmother's story of sadness felt, shared and overcome. I left the theater wondering if the solution is that simple. Would passing around handkerchiefs really make us happier? And then I realized there's nothing simple about Berry's solution at all. After all, what could be simpler than swallowing a pill?
Big Pharma is at The Marsh through December 10. Call: (415) 838-3006 or (800) 826-5750 for tickets.