Chemistry is a play about the chemistry between two young people who fall in love. But more importantly, it is about the chemistry between two young people who fall in love who have a chemical imbalance in their brains. Jacob Marx Rice’s Chemistry was the first in his trilogy of what the playwright refers to as his “Suicide Comedies” - preceding Coping and Cracks - that looked at mental illness through a raw yet comedic lens.
On the surface, Steph and Jamie (Monique Fisher and Thomas Filer) could not be more different. She works in a pub with a signature look of an oversized Janis Joplin t-shirt, black stockings and Doc Martens. He works for the government, and wears fitted suits and ties, with pens in his jacket pocket and hair kept perfectly in place. However, they are linked by their mental illnesses and a chance encounter at a psychiatrist's office has the two entering into a passionate relationship. While Steph has been living with chronic depression for most of her life and is quite the expert on various medications and treatments, Jamie has only recently been diagnosed with unipolar mania after an incident in which he did not sleep for days, ended up with him tearing off sections of his skin.
The two openly share their worries about their mental health and future with each other, and also address the audience through some direct narration. At times, this does feel like it's more of a lecture on mental illness than a confessional, but it allows the characters to speak of their anxieties, concerns and hopes without fear of judgement from their partner. Fisher and Filer give credible performances in portraying these complex characters as people who are struggling to not be defined by their mental illness and exposing their vulnerability.
Director Ryan A. Murphy has stripped the set to just a bed in Steph's apartment, where all the scenes - except at the psychiatrist's waiting room - takes place. This builds on the intimacy of the production and gives the audience an understanding of how intense the relationship between the two is, in that nothing else exists when they are together. Murphy ensures the two stay in the moment of each scene and with the number of distractions that occurred on the evening attended (latecomers, audience members talking during the show and noises from the show next door), it was evident how committed the two actors were in their roles to not let any of that affect them.
Mental illness isn't the easiest subject to broach in theatre. Fortunately Chemistry is a well written story that finds humour in the toughest moments of living, and uses this as a way to help with the healing and coping of such illnesses. The Little Theatre Company present a sympathetic and considered production on how tragic mental illness can be for sufferers when they are unable to access proper care and acknowledgement.
Venue: Alex Theatre St Kilda, 135 Fitzroy St, St Kilda
Season: Until 14 September | Tues-Sat 7.30pm, Sun 5:o0pm
Tickets: $30 Full | $25 Conc
Bookings: Alex Theatre