There is already a delicate balance in immersive theater, where the audience member has to figure out the level of agency they are allowed in a show while also throwing themselves into the story. It’s sometime difficult to feel that out as you go along, and I sometimes find myself more worried about saying or doing the wrong thing as opposed enjoying the story itself. When the show addresses a topic such as mental health, that already delicate balance turns into a high-wire act, making sure that the subject matter is handled with care and respect.
Prior to seeing THE SEVERANCE THEORY: WELCOME TO RESPITE, I was a tiny bit nervous about how they were going to pull this off, being as how their show revolves around Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). However, after attending last night, I can say with much confidence that the folks at CoAct Productions not only handle the disorder with extreme respect and care, but also created a fascinating and wonderful show in the process.
The premise is simple: you, the audience member, are cast in the role of Alex. Your mother has recently passed, and you have now inherited her house, your old family home. Once you meet your realtor (who is there to sign the deed over to you), you are left to sit on the porch with some of your old belongings. Belongings that I immediately started to look through, and included a very clever way to get “into” the story. And then, somehow, someway, you are transported back to a memory of when you were a young child.
Being as how WELCOME TO RESPITE is part one of the four part THE SEVERANCE THEORY show, it had to do a lot of heavy lifting to build this world for audience members. However, through the masterful writing of the CoAct Productions team, it does so with ease. To steal a description from a conversation I had with Lyndsie Scoggin, creative director and producer of CoAct, the show absolutely casts you in the lead role of what feels like a television show. Once you are planted into this memory from your past, this isn’t the type of show that you can just sit back and passively enjoy. You take an active role in the memory, talking to your parents, exploring your surroundings, as you find your way back home.
A lot of immersive shows tend to throw a lot of backstory and information in your face right off the bat, as a means to “immerse” you into their world. However, WELCOME TO RESPITE is perfectly comfortable with letting those story bits slowly parse out over time, allowing the story to come out in a more natural way. It really helps to pace the production and also make it seem more “real.”
This is done through the wonderful acting abilities of Kelley Pierre, playing your mother, and Payden Ackerman, playing you father. Both of them made me feel right at home, and quite honestly, like a kid again. Through subtle gestures and the way they looked at each other at times, you could tell that something was…off…in this home, but again, not in a way that they threw it in your face. It really was nice to be “home” with them. Especially of note was one scene that took place just out of earshot, in a hallway. The staging was so incredibly simple, yet VERY effective, that it was one of my favorites of the entire piece.
Also, a shout out to art director and producer Danielle Levesque (who played double duty as the realtor) for making the home feel “lived in,” as it truly did feel like a homecoming. It was definitely a place of warmth of love, and it truly did remind me of a place my family lived. This helped the actors tremendously, because it felt like a home, and not just a space that the production rented for the show. A simple touch, and one that some companies often forget about.
When it came to how Dissociative Identity Disorder played into the story, I have to say, I was very impressed with the handling of it. Again, being as this was the first of four shows, this was sort of the “first manifestation” of the disorder that comes into play. Through the use of simple, yet very effective, sound cues and some interesting visual elements, the way they showed how someone is affected by DID was really fascinating. It seemed like a small taste of what was to come, and I am very intrigued to see how it all plays out over the coming months.
Overall, THE SEVERANCE THEORY: WELCOME TO RESPITE was not only a great introduction into this world, but also a wonderful show. Mental illness is a slippery slope, but CoAct Productions really created something special while also being respectful of something that affects many people. WELCOME TO RESPITE was a welcome addition to the world of immersive theater, and I cannot wait to see how the rest of the story plays out.
Unfortunately, THE SEVERANCE THEORY: WELCOME TO RESPITE is now sold out. However, keep an eye on their site for more information on possible remounts and upcoming productions of the story. You can visit them online at: https://www.coactproductions.com/