Mary, a woman dressed as an old man. Another Mary, a woman in a lobster suit. John Kane, a nervous mental patient in blue pajamas. And a nameless drummer who never speaks. These eccentric characters come together in Enda Walsh’s often baffling yet always arresting new play, “Medicine,” a presentation of Landmark Productions and the Galway International Arts Festival that opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse on Tuesday.
John (Domhnall Gleeson) wanders onto the set, a drab room with the look of a community center hall (design by Jamie Vartan). It’s a mess — the aftermath of a staff party, with streamers and balloons — and John is concerned about it. He putters around, fidgeting and picking things up haphazardly.
He’s preparing for the arrival of the two Marys (Aoife Duffin and Clare Barrett) and the drummer (Sean Carpio). They’re there at the institution to run through a script of John’s life, presumably as a kind of drama therapy.
Once they arrive and their routine gets underway, the Marys don different costumes and lip sync a recording of dialogue from the people in John’s life, beginning with his parents on the day he was born. As John narrates, the Marys interrupt, to share notes and perform random dances while the drummer scores the scenes. But as John’s story unfolds, he becomes increasingly frazzled.
Walsh, a celebrated playwright and director whose enigmatic works include “Grief Is the Thing with Feathers,” “Arlington” and “Rooms,” also writes and directs this play, which feels like a psychosexual absurdist fantasy. How long has John been here? What parts of this are real? Walsh is less concerned with providing answers than he is with making us sit with John’s mounting sense of desolation and shame. In this way, the work resembles a poem or an interpretive dance, resonating with symbols and gestures and feelings, and the rest is for the audience to puzzle through.
John recounts abuse by his parents and peers when he was a child, and maltreatment at the hands of a worker at the institution. He scrutinizes his mother’s negligence and overt sexuality, and conflates his budding erotic desires as a teen with his yearning for maternal love and attention. All the while the narcissistic Lobster Mary (or Mary 2, as the script calls her) controls the performance: She harasses Mary 1 and bullies John.
If that weren’t Freudian enough, Walsh plants recurring images and themes throughout, implying connections between John’s version of his past and the present moment with the actors.
What the two Marys are doing here is its own theater — a production that Mary 1 starts to suspect is cruel. As they step into and out of the personalities in John’s life, the lights shift with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” playing. (Adam Silverman handles the mercurial lighting.)
Barrett gives a menacing performance as Mary 2, who embodies some of the more brutal characters in John’s tale and aims her own shots of hostility at Mary 1 (Duffin, who appeared as Ophelia opposite Ruth Negga in “Hamlet” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2020). Duffin’s Mary is empathetic, so much so that she inhabits John’s story, and at some point the voice-over of a character she’s playing overlaps with her voice as she speaks the same lines. The language here — which Walsh writes with aureate poeticism, full of vivid imagery and pointed symbolism — is what gives the show its melancholic beauty.
Then there’s Gleeson himself, with his impressive performance. He is a chameleonic TV and film star (“Harry Potter,” “Star Wars,” “Run”) who can convey anything from a villainous sneer to a sensitive whimper with his entire physical bearing. Despite his height, Gleeson seems to wilt like a flower in want of sun. He nervously shuffles around the stage or gets worked into a frenzy — huffing and flailing with explosive bravado, seamlessly accompanied by Carpio’s percussion. (Helen Atkinson handily controls the layered sound design.)
There could easily be more Gleeson — and by that I mean more of John’s perspective, because we get only snapshots of his life. By the end, John reasserts that he’s “not like other people” and belongs in the institution. It seems John is a victim of a kind of manipulation; the drama therapy isn’t to help him but to gaslight him into believing he mustn’t ever try to seek freedom. Beneath all the oddities of Walsh’s script is a criticism of the ways in which society fails the mentally ill.
It’s unclear whether Walsh is also indicting theater — this is, after all, a play in which a play is used toward devious ends. So perhaps “Medicine” is simply a work of fanciful mysteries. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter. The emotional core of the show is always prevalent.
By the end, John’s dejection feels as familiar as a phantom pain. He may still be within the same sad four walls where he began, but Walsh’s production transforms the space from one of isolation into one of empathy that even the audience can share. Because ultimately, a couple of doses of human connection is the best medicine anyone can ask for.
Through Dec. 5 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn; stannswarehouse.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.