This was not a normal night of theater in Indianapolis. First, actors performed the Beckmann Theatre’s “rehearsed reading” of Asylum, where the story takes place: on the grounds of the Central State mental hospital along West Washington Street. More precisely, they read in the surgical theater at the Indiana Medical History Museum, formerly the hospital’s pathology center, an 1896 laboratory (think Young Frankenstein) where doctors once autopsied insane brains. Some of those same brains, now preserved in jars, lined shelves in a room where patrons snacked on oatmeal cookies and lemonade during intermission June 12.
Indianapolis writer David Schanker and the real Dr. Jonathan Mangold, subject of ‘Asylum
The purpose of the production was just as rare. The Beckmann offered the reading — no set, actors (sometimes) reading from scripts in hand, minimal movement — as a sort of tryout for David Schanker’s docudrama about a down-on-his-luck psychologist (Dr. Jonathan Mangold) who used art as a way to reach his schizophrenic patients. Just as his program was beginning to take hold, the state — led by the efforts of Gov. Evan Bayh — decided to close Central State. Much of the play is about Mangold’s qualities and flaws — his doubts and determination. Bob Berry was engaging as the doctor — a role that calls for displaying a broad range of emotion and an ability to handle the spotlight in every scene. The play is also about the real-life effects of the hospital’s closing in 1994. Schanker offered four characters as examples of patients at the hospital. The audience learned why the patients were committed, saw them grow under Mangold’s care and then found out what happened to them following the closing of the hospital. Ultimately, the play resists a direct political statement about the decision, leaving that to the audience. Asylum succeeds in many things: exploring Mangold’s character, revealing the history of Central State, examining art as therapy, considering the plight of the mentally ill. Occasionally, it is colored with a slight tinge of sentimentality — especially in a relationship between Mangold and a young, female sociologist — but this is all balanced by a hard-edged reality, complete with patients screaming swear words and talking about blowjobs and big penises. Likewise, the seriousness of the drama and the inevitable sadness of the ending are both balanced nicely with the sort of sense of humor it takes to live through something like this. After the reading, director (and NUVO senior writer) Rita Kohn asked the audience — which had filled the 100-plus seat theater — for feedback. Mental health clinicians and patients shared their positive feelings about the play, noting its authenticity and impact. And, as a group, the audience voiced support for the play moving next to a fully staged production — something it certainly deserves. But the ultimate compliment — and maybe the most unusual part of the evening — came when the real Dr. Mangold (who looked eerily like Berry) stood from his seat in the surgical theater and said of the play, “It is as it was.”