“World Builders”: Mental Illness Dares to Dream

Alisha Spielmann and August Schulenburg in World Builders. Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum.

Some people classified as living with schizoid personality disorder are shut away from the “normal” world. Perhaps for their own good, they’re sent to mental hospitals or become the guinea pigs for drug trials. What if these patients got together and, after inventing the necessary vocabulary, talked to each other about their inner worlds? What if they were frightened of losing those inner worlds as a result of their treatment? This is the premise of World Builders, a new play by Johnna Adams, produced by Flux Theatre Ensemble, directed by Kelly O’Donnell.

Whitney (Alisha Spielmann) and Max (August Schulenberg) meet in the art-infested lounge of a mental health center in Baltimore. They have both come to this room to be alone — i.e., to live in their heads while they still can. Whitney’s family lives in the Hamptons, which means they have the money to place her in a treatment program over the noblest objections of insurance companies. Since Max’s uncle in Seattle is also his doctor, Max was “willingly compelled” to enroll in the same drug trial. Whitney’s outgoing, dominant nature gradually draws the guarded Max into her confidence. She wants them to share each other’s private worlds. As she puts it, “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.” She adds: “I’m narcissistic and anti-social, so I won’t judge.”

World Builders is full of non-verbal, but not necessarily quiet, moments when Whitney and Max engage their inner realities. We later learn that Whitney presides over hundreds of human and non-human creatures whose destinies she intends to safeguard. (Max later quips, “You have a bad fantasy series, not a world.”) Max is surprised to hear that Whitney plans to kill off all these characters before the meds destroy their world. By contrast, Max’s disorder focuses on an underground, concrete bunker where female captives are terribly and methodically eliminated by an unseen killer — perhaps a dark part of Max’s nature. Whitney’s world is broad; Max’s is deep. Whitney is empowered to rewind the chronology of her world and do things over. Such control over the rules is liberating, making the “not-real” much more appealing than the “real.”

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As treatment progresses, Whitney and Max find they have the capacity for more social interaction. Could they get away with exploring their new connection, both physically and emotionally? “I guess that means substituting feelings for other people in place of our worlds,” muses Whitney. “As inadequate as that sounds, yes,” Max boldly remarks.

Several weeks later, Whitney and Max wait with their packed bags for rides home. Although they may be ready for the tedium of “normal” life in their respective homes, Max urges Whitney to come to Seattle with him. “What’s it like?” she asks. “Terrible!” he replies, before she walks out the door. And yet she soon runs back in, rewinding the scene to choose a much happier life.

During the show’s intermissionless 90 minutes, Spielmann uses her character’s words to extends her world around the set and into the audience. Schulenberg keeps up artfully awkward attempts to maintain his character’s boundaries. Together, these actors create a joyous, revelatory experience akin to a happy version of the film Cocoon. O’Donnell, as director, regulates the pace of this mind-opening tale better than certain medications.

Playwright Adams has an extensive history of collaboration with Flux Ensemble: her Angel Eaters Trilogy was produced in rep in 2008; Sans Merci followed in 2013. The 2015 production of her verse play Lickspittles, Buttonholers and Damned Pernicious Go-Betweens from Boomerang Theatre Company fascinated me. World Builders was developed by Forum Theatre and other leading regional groups.

World Builders runs through May 13 at the West End Theater (263 W. 86th St.). For tickets, click here.

And now, five questions no one has ever asked Johnna Adams:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

Someone once pointed out that all my best plays (Sans Merci, Rattlers, Gidion’s Knot, World Builders, Nurture) start with two strangers meeting for the first time. I had never noticed that myself, but it is a glaringly obvious commonality. Something about the pressure and awkwardness of meeting strangers is very dramatic to me. I seem to find it endlessly fascinating enough to start almost the majority of my plays with that as the launching point.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

I don’t recall any questions that I consider idiotic, really. Probably one of the funniest exchanges I’ve had is after a reading of my historical play about the Oneida Community, a Civil War-era utopian religious experiment). An amateur historian who had a lifelong obsession with this group showed up to a talkback and screamed at me that I’d gotten everything about the community wrong. The original Oneida community governed itself by a system of mutual criticism, and this guy and I basically had a similar exchange, a criticism session over details of their criticism practices. It was outlandish and nostalgic and passionate and surpassingly strange.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

I get “What is going on in that head of yours?” as a question constantly. Play after play. World Builders may be an inadequate attempt to answer that question. It’s at least an exploration of what goes on in the heads of people as afflicted with an obsessive need for stories as I am. It’s a bizarre question. Apparently rhetorical, since no one really waits for an answer after asking it. It’s slightly hostile. But I have the same voyeuristic interest in what goes on in other people’s heads; that’s why I’m a playwright.

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How has this play grown, leading up to the current production?

This was a tough show to write and to craft. Two person shows are hard to structure sometimes. So once I got it into a decent form, I stopped myself from doing any rewrites. So, from a script perspective, the script hasn’t changed from day one of rehearsals. It isn’t a perfect script, but I know my limits, and I am 59% more likely to make something worse in revisions. The script works. But it has some of imperfections. I think they keep it from seeming too slick. So I’m not bothered by that. I think the real growth is going to be in performances when we get to see what this script means to people. I hope the script will find a niche of audience members that know the script was written for them and appreciate it.

Since you wrote this play, have you observed any real-life stories similar to its plot?

I have definitely had audience members who find commonalities between themselves and the characters. Or see family members in the characters. The play has sparked discussions with total strangers about the effectiveness of depression medications, the importance of binge TV, life-destroying mental illnesses, the effect of being labeled “abnormal” on children, and a variety of painful, wonderful and touching stories. This will always be a very precious play to me because it has made people who feel very alone feel less alone in the theater.