David Lee White's Fixed, now at the Passage Theatre in Trenton through Sunday, is trying to do something valuable and difficult: To tell of friends with mental illness in their midst. When family and society fail, much often falls to friends, and what can they do?
In 2000, Valerie, Ronnie, and Darryl are three high school friends in Trenton. Ronnie and Valerie are "drama geeks," Darryl, a sensitive jock. Ronnie is the glue: Played with wild gusto by Maria Konstantinidis, she's magnetic, the leader in charge of vision and mischief. She likes to convene by the Rhombus, a sculpture at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton that, she claims, radiates magic powers: "It can heal people, but there's something dark in there." The three swear a blood pact always to help one another.
But Valerie (played with attractive vulnerability by Alicia Isabel Rivas) wants to be an actress, not "to spend the rest of my life in Trenton." Darryl (played with hesitant sensitivity by Phillip Gregory Burke) has a future in law. On graduation night, Ronnie attempts suicide. Instead of bringing them together, it blows them apart – until Darryl reencounters Ronnie in 2017 on the street, because "that's what happens in Trenton." Careers and misfortune have swept them downstream; how far are they willing to swim back to Ronnie?
Darryl: "It's like someone is wearing Ronnie's skin and is doing a really bad Ronnie impression." Much is awkward, much is hard.
I like these three. We get their oddfellows-club friendship, readily accept the sexual ambiguities. Norman Meranus' white/brown/black casting (not called for in the script, but very much Trenton) is ideal, and the troubling flashbacks – Ronnie haunts their dreams – prevent sentimentality.
Deena Jiles-Shu'aib is good as Janine, a nurse at Harrison House with a bipolar diagnosis. (She's writing two grants: One claiming the place needs more money for more beds, and another claiming success, leaving more beds open.) We're told that "nobody really understands mental illness," and it's Ronnie who accuses Valerie, and all of us: "You're afraid of sick people. Everyone is afraid of mentally ill people."
Some things beg for attention. A good actor like Konstantinidis shows us she's hearing voices – do we really need to hear them so much? How likely is it that Darryl and Valerie would respond so many years later to a high school pact they have dishonored for so long? They (especially Valerie) seem at earlier stages in their careers, not 17 years on. As to the production, much is done with little in the Passage tradition (years of good shows on baling wire, spit, a wing, a prayer, whatever was at hand). Graphic designer Linda Lobdell makes clever use of projected images, particularly at an electroconvulsive turning point.
Where mental illness is concerned, it's too easy to be wrong. Fixed explores whether anything can ever be right, and, where friends are involved, what "fixed" can even mean.
Fixed. Though May 21 at the Passage Theatre Company, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 E. Front St., Trenton. Tickets: $13-38. Information: 609-392-0766, passagetheatre.org.