VIRGINIA WOOLF walked into a river with stones in her pockets. Sylvia Plath wrote about the trauma of electroconvulsive therapy. And in Ellen Margolis' new script, receiving a world premiere from local playwriting collective Playwrights West, a young woman navigates both electricity and water in her efforts to understand how mental illness affects her own life.
Lucy (Rachel Rosenfeld) is a college student preoccupied with strange, secret experiments about the nature of electricity. When she was a child, her mother underwent electroshock therapy—and Lucy is determined to sort out how and why that treatment left her mother changed forever. She doesn't share the reason for her interest with her boyfriend, Mark (Alex Kirby), though, who struggles to support her even as she goes increasingly off the rails.
Margolis' script, under Ryan Reilly's direction, fully embraces its own theatricality: There are moments in this show that simply couldn't occur in other mediums, like a lovely ocean scene, streaked through with colorful fish, or a scene where an antic crew of lab assistants take a fast-paced tour of Lucy's brain, à la Being John Malkovich.
The script could benefit, though, from a little more fleshing out on the science front—a lemon rolls across the stage, a light bulb flickers, but the nature of Lucy's investigations remains veiled. "Electricity is a metaphor" comes through loud and clear, but that's about it. And more critically, an over-choreographed ending feels sentimental and tacked on—here's my personal plea to the writer and director to end the show three minutes earlier, on a human note of ambiguity and complexity.
As Lucy, Rachel Rosenfeld shows tremendous promise, but the most powerful performance comes from Rebecca Toland as Louise, Lucy's mother. Toland starts out rocky, in a scene where she's required to loll onstage in a slip, an unfortunate device wherein her electroshock treatment is introduced as a love affair. (It's awkward.) But as the show progresses, her character reveals confusion, fragility, strength, and most importantly, a complete attentiveness to the other actors onstage. She humanizes scenes that in lesser hands would feel cartoonish—a razor wire the show walks, with varying degrees of success, for its entire runtime. (As Lucy's boyfriend, Alex Kirby is also particularly good in this regard.)
Licking Batteries needs work—the balance of wackiness and sincerity doesn't always feel considered or controlled, a problem both with the script and the direction. But in situating itself among historical and metaphorical conversations about women and madness, and doing so in a way that's resolutely theatrical and accessibly silly, it's a promising, worthwhile show.