If you've ever known anyone grappling with the overwhelming effects of clinical depression, you soon learn not to say, "Hey, droopypuss, let's turn that frown upside down!" Vapidly upbeat drivel may work for someone experiencing a fleeting malaise, but real depression exerts a gravitational pull on the psyche as powerful -- and often as deadly -- as a relentless force of nature. There are many treatments, ranging from serious drugs to talk therapy, but no guaranteed solutions.
Playwright and actor Sarah Morton explores her own journey through the nightmarish sadness in 4 Minutes to Happy, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. In this thoroughly absorbing one-woman show, Morton never lectures or complains, she just reveals a variety of moments that express how it feels to be cut off from one's own feelings while being swept along in a wave of free-floating emptiness. In 90 minutes, the idea of depression moves from an ethereal concept to one person's day-to-day reality.
It is a tribute to Morton's writing and performing skills, as well as the sensitive direction of Randy Rollison, that she can tell this agonizing story while creating so many laughs along the way. It all begins when she's on a mind-numbing date with a guy who suddenly announces that he can recite Hamlet backwards -- a seemingly impossible feat that he proceeds to accomplish before her eyes (or so we are told). Intrigued, Morton asks him, "Can you do any others?" and tries to engage in conversation. But in her conflicted mental state, "Words interrupt like overeager chaperones," never letting her establish a solid connection with him. Or anyone.
Slim and intense, Morton does a skillful job of showing how she isn't even aware of how unhappy she appears: People she approaches look over her shoulder to see why she's apparently ready to cry, thinking there must be danger approaching. This lack of personal awareness is a constant theme, as Morton slips into several different characters -- most notably a coldly efficient nurse in a doctor's office where Morton goes to get drugs (which she decides not to take) and a political-activist friend named Marcy who, after one of her rants, protests defensively, "I am not quoting the Unabomber!"
But the play is really about what's happening inside the fevered brain of a depressive, and Morton takes some risks to propel the audience into that dimly understood region. After hearing a random woman on TV say that God speaks to people in the shower, she stands under an invisible stream of water, without moving or speaking, for an extended amount of time. Her stillness and silence speak louder than a litany of words as she waits for a word, a gesture -- anything that could help.
Performed on a wittily chirpy set by scenic designer Trad A. Burns, featuring a sunny and ironic display of Cheerios boxes, 4 Minutes takes the audience through near-suicidal despair to a "beginning of a beginning" marked by the realization that all anyone has is the moment. We have to reach for that, even when nothing else is within our grasp.