World Builders

by John Stoltenberg

To judge by social media, love and madness are a thing. Here are a few choice examples now making the rounds in the meme-osphere:

“Love is merely a madness….” (William Shakespeare)
“There is always some madness in love….” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
“When love is not madness, it is not love.” (Pedro Calderon de la Barca)

Love and madness have apparently become such an item, they go together better now than love and marriage did back in the day (“like a horse and carriage”).

In Johnna Adams’s play World Builders—now on stage in a poignant and absorbing production from Forum Theatre—the love/madness metaphor takes on profound new depth.

The world of the play is located in the experience of a young woman, Whitney, and a young man, Max, who have both been clinically diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder (SPD). Their affliction is no poetic-trope madness. Theirs is literal, described in the DSMMD (what shrinks call the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The play is set in a psychiatric wing, specifically that at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Whitney and Max are subjects in a six-week clinical trial of a new med that might ameliorate their symptoms (which the play presents with veracity).

At the beginning Whitney is the highly charged livewire, and Laura C. Harris’s performance of her is electrifyingly supple. In contrast Max’s pilot light appears to have gone out; his affect is sullen and dull. Though we don’t yet know it, Daniel Corey’s performance of him will have heart-wrenching emotional range.

That Whitney and Max fall in love—a prospect planted early on when Whitney persists in getting Max’s attention—turns out to be far less a surprise than why and how they do so.

I caught the show last night at Woolly Mammoth where it is running in the rehearsal hall through November 21 very up close and personal. Staged in the round with but two rows of seats on all sides, and smartly directed by Amber McGinnis Jackson, World Builders is about as intimate and arresting as theater gets.

I found the ending not only beautifully moving but head-spinning. I won’t give it away; one should discover the progress of the play for oneself. But it has to do with the impact of Adams’s establishment of each of the two characters’ very separate and distinct “worlds,” private mental spaces that represent their respective experiences of their shared syndrome.

These worlds are of enormous importance to each character. “My world is the closest thing I have to a heart,” Whitney says. Her world is like a science-fiction fantasia packed with people, planets, and plots. Max’s world, by contrast, is macabre; it’s like the grim crime scene of serial killer. Max is gentle to his core and his world torments him. Still his grim fixation on it functions as a kind of attachment.

Whitney and Max are both fully cognizant that the drugs they are taking are “world-killer pills,” which will literally clear their minds. And they are not sure they want that.

“I love my world more than I love you,” Whitney tells Max—yet, “I want you and my world.”

The unfolding relationship between Whitney and Max becomes a love story stripped of the blinders that love typically insists on. The magnificent metaphor that Adams builds in World Builders will resonate for anyone who has a personal world of enormous importance to them and who does not want that world infringed on in order to comply with what is expected in order to be attached to another person. The fundamental question the play asks is this: If we each have a world and we cannot be ourselves without it and we cannot let someone else into it, how do we negotiate living and loving with someone else who also has their own world?

This play’s metaphor of an answer might rock your world.

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