Even though mental illness, its treatment, and its tentacles are prominent, friendship of a deep and binding kind is the subject of David Lee White’s world premiere play, “Fixed,” at Trenton’s Passage Theater.
White explores the descent of Ronnie (Maria Konstantinidis in a breakthrough performance) from a quirky, rebellious teen who hears voices emanating from a Mercer County sculpture, the Rhombus, to a disturbed woman of 35 who, in the throes of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, harangues passersby on Trenton streets. “Fixed” puts forward biological and environmental reasons for Ronnie’s condition and saves for near its end one melodramatic tidbit about how her worst woes could have been controlled or prevented. But it is Ronnie’s relationships with her closest buddies from high school that grabs center stage and absorbs the most attention.
Ronnie, Val (Alicia Isabel Rivas), and Daryl (Phillip Gregory Burke) are practically inseparable and have major influences on each other in their senior year at a Trenton public school. The girls meet Daryl after Ronnie ends his potential basketball career by running over him on the school parking lot two days after she receives her driver’s license. Their special place, their meeting place, is the Rhombus (actually in Princeton), and it is there they make a vow to come to each other’s aid whenever needed through the remainder of their lives.
The vow, confirmed in bloody thumbprints, seems like a typical teenage lark, a congenial, romantic act among friends — one that justifies Ronnie taking an unprepared Val’s SATs and scoring a 1520 out of 1600 — until Daryl encounters Ronnie raving in paranoid delusion and calls Val back from L.A. where she is pursuing an acting career to team up in rescuing Ronnie from her torpor.
The dogged dedication to this vow consumes White’s play and provides its heart. Our interest is not to see how far Ronnie goes in her breakdown or resistance to medical treatment but how long Daryl and Val, who have thriving careers and have not seen or spoken to each other or Ronnie in the second half of their lifetimes to date, will continue to fight for the friend who was their leader and motivator in their youth.
Much goes on in “Fixed.” White likes detail and packs his play with information, particularly tiebacks that provide total understanding or logic of “Fixed’s” many threads. He also goes back and forth between past and current scenes with the three friends and sequences of Ronnie in a government-run mental health facility in which she wallows in denial and willfulness.
The welter of information makes “Fixed” complex and clear about all of the themes and ideas it broaches. The play commands attention because it has likeable characters about whom you come to care deeply and because it touches on how mental illness is looked at both institutionally and from a casual observer’s point of view. It grips, but it doesn’t totally compel because “Fixed” seems like a work in progress more than a finished piece.
White’s compulsion for clarity and traceable reasoning often gets in his way. Exposition clogs emotion. You care about what’s happening but take it in clinically, in the manner Janine (Deena Jiles-Shu’aib), a case worker at the mental hospital, regards and refers to her patients.
“Fixed” is a study of a situation. It has definite emotional high points, and Konstantinidis and Rivas can elicit tears, but in its current stage, episodes seem too carefully planned, as if Daryl and Val are speaking to provide background rather than having a conversation between friends, even friends whose comfort with each other has been somewhat eroded by time and who left off their relationship in an awkward, unsaid way.
A need for more subtlety and sliding the essential into casual talk comes to light in a long passage in which Janine describes mental illness, Ronnie’s condition in particular, as if she were reciting from a textbook rather than speaking like someone addressing a patient’s advocate.
At Passage, you hear more than see places where White can begin to make “Fixed” as absorbing as it is interesting or provocative. To the ear, the use of “10 years” to bridge the last time Ronnie, Val, and Daryl saw each other and the period elapsed since Daryl has tried to reach Val by telephone, seems too offhand. The number of times Val or Daryl says, “I can’t, I can’t” when dealing with Ronnie becomes almost comic in its repetition. Janine’s review of what is happening in Ronnie’s brain can certainly use some softening and humanization.
The one aspect of “Fixed” you wonder about is whether White means to be critical of the public health system or resigned to what it is, flawed or not. Janine could be an institutional wonk who puts protocol ahead of individual need and makes money a consideration in determining treatment. Or she could be a positive force. You don’t know until “Fixed” runs three quarters of its 90-minute course.
The importance here is whether White wants “Fixed” to question the system, as Val is inclined to do and Ronnie definitely does or whether the system does its best against difficult odds, including patient resistance, as Daryl seems to think. That conundrum could be a whole other play. It matters here because White seems to be leaning in one direction then veers another way. The good or bad of the hospital has to be established sooner and not left to Ronnie, Val, or Daryl’s warring points of view.
“Fixed” needs more work. Mainly because I like — and remain interested in — what White has provided. That’s the thing about complexity. It sets your mind racing on various subjects. A play has to focus more on one, and it is the scenes of teenage friendship in which “Fixed” is at its breeziest and most complete.
Maureen Heffernan’s staging is direct and basic, a good choice given the range White brings forward to contemplate. One asset is Susan DeConcini’s set, which consists of four screens, the side panels rounded to suggest a brain, reinforced by projections throughout the play. The screens can also be used to show the Rhombus and the facility in which Ronnie is being treated.
One of the glories of “Fixed” is the riveting natural portrayal of Maria Konstantinidis as Ronnie. Konstantinidis hits intense, correct, and compelling notes. Her performance has no seams. She shows you Ronnie in the flesh, and Konstantinidis and White have to be thanked for this multi-faceted, well-realized creation. Ronnie mesmerizes because Konstantinidis does. This actress has been standing out in small parts in several Philadelphia productions. “Fixed” brings her into her own. Konstantinidis makes the most of her opportunity to unleash talent and depth unneeded in most previous roles.
Alicia Isabel Rivas also shows range and human individuality as the complicated Val, the one who got out of Trenton, became an actress, and made millions of Americans buy a particular hamburger based on her performance in an ad. Rivas shows Val battling within as she weighs her life against friendship and “the” vow and judges between the right medical approach for Ronnie and preserving Ronnie in ways treatment might mute. Phillip Gregory Burks and Deena Jiles-Shu’aib play their parts efficiently, Jiles-Shu’aib having some fine moments towards of the end.
Fixed, Passage Theater, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Through Sunday, May 21. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $13 to $33. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.