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© Ahron R. Foster
© Ahron R. Foster
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Theater: Rebecca Hall Endures a Woman's Wound in "Animal"

Picture of Carey Purcell
Updated: 11 June 2017
Patience is a virtue when watching Animal, the provocative new Clare Lizzimore play currently in performances at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2. Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch with a focus that is simultaneously clinical and compassionate, the unsettling drama explores a woman’s battle for her sanity.

Rebecca Hall plays Rachel, a married woman in her thirties who is suffering a severe and unexplained mental health crisis.

During a session with her psychiatrist (Greg Keller), Rachel is prickly and defensive. She deflects some questions and refuses to answer others, all the while aggressively posing queries about what kinds of medication he can prescribe her. (When he asks her what she ate for breakfast, she responds without hesitation, “Six cups of coffee and some speed.”)

Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in “Animal.”
Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in “Animal.” | © Ahron R. Foster

Given that her doctor is attempting to score her sanity with a questionnaire that ranks each answer with a numerical score, can she be blamed her for her attitude?

Acted with the audience seated on either side of the performance space, Animal stages the workings of Rachel’s muddled inner monologue in an ominous atmosphere, its details supplied by Rachel Hauck’s design, Bradley King’s lighting, Stowe Nelson’s sound, and Daniel Kluger’s music.

In some scenes, Rachel speaks into a microphone; in others, disembodied voices converse around her. She engages with a stealthy intruder (played by the confidently sexual David Pegram), who kisses her without consent; with her aged and ailing mother-in-law (the powerful Kristin Griffith), who is unable to walk, speak, or feed herself; and, in an especially chilling scene, the schoolgirl (the poised Fina Strazza) who takes the place of Rachel’s psychiatrist.

Kristin Griffith and Morgan Spector in “Animal”
Kristin Griffith and Morgan Spector in “Animal” | © Ahron R. Foster

Why does Rachel wear a knitted cap in every scene, even after she has convinced herself she is returning to her job and changed from her loose-fitting pants and sneakers into a blazer and heels? (The casually modern costumes were designed by Sarah J. Holden.)

Aware of her condition but unable to alter it, Rachel cannot trust her eyes; as a result, the audience cannot trust what it sees either. Rachel’s encounters are not explained, nor are any specifics regarding her state of mind—such as her medical history, or what provokes particular episodes—until the intermission-less 90-minute performance has almost concluded.

The potency of the eventual revelation is dependent on pacing and structure. Though the play is not exactly linear, the tension slowly escalates, scene by scene. However, the lack of context or explanation makes it hard to figure out why Rachel’s husband, Tom, is so steadfast, even though there are flashbacks to romantic moments between the two.

Rebecca Hall and David Pegram in “Animal”
Rebecca Hall and David Pegram in “Animal” | © Ahron R. Foster

Played with warmth and compassion by Morgan Spector (Hall’s real-life husband), Tom is unconditionally supportive of Rachel even in the most painful or bizarre circumstances. When Rachel bluntly informs Tom she is considering having an affair, he accepts the news calmly and without question. It is not until the play’s secret is revealed that one can understand Tom’s unflappable devotion.

Hall gives a powerhouse performance as Rachel, playing every scene as a tightly wound, desperately spinning woman. It’s exhausting just watching her, or listening to her wearily reply, “I achieved getting out of bed today,” after Tom has asked her what she did while he was at work. Rachel’s anguish is apparent in every interaction, whether the intruder is berating her for the messiness of her house, or whether, permitting herself to be vulnerable, she is begging Tom to remember her as she was “before.”

Fina Strazza in “Animal”
Fina Strazza in “Animal” | © Ahron R. Foster

Many moments in Animal are unapologetically feminist, as when Rachel explodes at Tom, giving an impassioned description of her frustration when he leaves her at home every day to go to his office. She rants at her psychiatrist about the lack of information regarding her condition, which only women endure, angrily declaring that it would have been diagnosed and cured years ago if it affected men. Rachel’s vexation at his patronizing suggestion that she should “do something nice” for herself by purchasing a face mask is more than understandable.

The disclosure of Rachel’s specific mental health problem, which is the issue that drives the production, comes so late that one wonders if Lizzimore’s refusal to introduce it earlier was counterintuitive. A historically and medically neglected topic, it would benefit from more open and honest discussion than Animal allows.

Animal continues through July 2 at Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, NY 10011. Buy tickets here.