By: JK Clarke
Most people experience hardships growing up. Some childhoods are certainly more difficult than others; but as young people, we are self-centered and think that every little thing that goes wrong is a symptom of the world caving in.
Imagine Anne Pasquale’s surprise when, presumably as an adult, she realized her childhood angst and frustrations weren’t exaggerated in the slightest bit. If you didn’t grow up in a household with an emotionally disturbed (ED) person, it’s just about impossible to imagine what that might be like. In Ms. Pasquale’s one-woman play, BOB: Blessed Be the Dysfunction That Binds (now at the Dorothy Strelsin Theater), you get an immersive lesson in what such a life was like. And it certainly wasn’t pleasant. The play’s tag line sums it up: “When mental illness comes home, the whole family has special needs.”
Anne is the middle child in a family of three. Her elder brother Bob is emotionally disturbed and subject to emotionally and sometimes physically violent episodes. Ms. Pasquale lets us experience those moments with a portrayal of her brother that is both sensitive and severe, and intense! Bob speaks haltingly and bangs his hand against his head almost rhythmically. If you’ve encountered a person like this you’ll recognize the behavior immediately. Anne’s been around it forever and has it down cold.
When we join Anne, she’s living on the Lower East Side and awaiting a visit from her brother and his caretaker. We’re in on the visit, too, and she explains to us things we may or may not want to do. Objects we should put aside. Things we might not want to say. She really wants things to go right. Bob’s been doing very well lately, but you never know . . .
Anne then tells us what it was like growing up with Bob. How ordinary things she enjoyed, that any child would enjoy — playing games with her sister or making a gift for her mother — were shattered by Bob’s mere presence. Fear of one of his outbursts casts an anxious shadow over any and all normal activities. Ultimately Bob, who has become a very large and difficult-to-manage young man, has to be placed in a home where he can be cared for and monitored, both for his safety and for the safety of others. It’s a heartbreaking dilemma for the family, particularly since mental health care facilities of the period (which have since evolved and improved) were at times no better, and often more exploitive, than prisons (think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). And, although funding remains an ongoing issue, state run facilities (as well as society at large) have at least begun to understand mental illness and manage it more appropriately . . . but, of course, there’s always room for vast improvement.
Ms. Pasquale’s portrayals of her family, friends, those she interacts with, and Bob are energetic and heartfelt. Her love for her brother and her frustration with his condition are palpable. This production is truly both a declaration of her love for her brother and a shout out to the world that we must support mental health care services. With a little help, and a lot of love, those in need as well as their families, can withstand these difficult circumstances a lot better.
BOB: Blessed Be the Dysfunction that Binds. Directed by Mary Ann Hay. Through October 6 at The Abingdon Theater (312 West 36th Street at 8th Avenue). Tickets: www.BobTheShow.com