Suicide haunts us. Not just the sudden absence of a person who ends their life, or the questions left unanswered, but how it rattles your sense that wanting to live is the status quo. Portland writer Ben Moorad has been haunted by 124 people who attempted to end their lives in New Britton, Connecticut between 1941 and 1948. He discovered their stories in an envelope of newspaper clippings his grandfather, a psychiatrist in the town, had kept. Two years ago, Moorad started collaborating with Hand2Mouth to create on project inspired by those clippings and it has been distilled into two haunting and lyrical companion shows, The Art of Blushing and The Lazarus Complex.
For those familiar with Hand2Mouth, this show will feel restrained. There's no audience interaction or any of their hallmark choreography. Rather, artistic director Jonathan Walters has Moorad and the performers lined up in front of the audience with scripts on music stands. Though it’s not a staged reading, Walters has pared back the show to its essential elements. The straightforward and subtle presentation of the text, simple projections, and a quiet and melancholy soundtrack composed and preformed by the local rock band Months, all serve to amplify the words.
In this way The Art of Blushing and The Lazarus Complex become an essay to experience, instead of read. Moorad’s script is deliberate and winding, turning a few scant details found in newspaper clippings and old high school yearbooks into tender portraits of complex people. He loops out from his subjects, wandering through the history of New Britton, World War II, and his own life in an attempt to make sense of these lives. There’s both wonder and reverence in Moorad’s text, which fits with Hand2Mouth's sensibilities as well.
While The Art of Blushing focuses on the will to die, delving into the lives of people struggling to keep going in the world, The Lazarus Complex searches out the will to live that lingers underneath. Each show informs the other, attempting to balance our understanding of why people attempt to end their own lives. The plays are designed to be seen together, but it’s not a perfect balance. The Lazarus Project struggles a little under the weight of the whole, but still manages to hold on to a sense of hope. And just enough of that might save a life.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, the Portland Suicide Lifeline is 503-972-3456. And for those outside of Portland, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) or 1-800-273-8255. You can also text "help" to 741-741.