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'Cries That Bind' dissects the 'tsunami of the soul'

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

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The calm before the storm: The cast of Cries That Bind at the Cellar.

The sardonic theme song of M*A*S*H assures us that: "Suicide is painless." But bungle the sword stroke during seppuku, and you can count on excruciating agony before your final breath. Nor are loved ones spared the pain. A sudden suicide can either scar and scatter family and friends or else unite them in collective grief and renewal. Though tears of mourning blind, they can also bind. Cries That Bind, a new two-act play by Sheila Lynch Rinear that is receiving its premiere at the San Pedro Playhouse's Cellar Theater, traces the stages of grieving — from desolation to redemption — after a devastating loss.

Though publicity pronounces this a play about the aftermath of suicide, it is not until late in the proceedings — the end of Act One — that Johnny Hennessey (Tyler Keyes) disappears into the night and sea. Nell Hennessey (Christi Eanes) adores her older brother, a talented painter who has defied their father's edict to pursue a practical career. Possessed by what she calls "a creative sense of responsibility" as well as the need to earn some money, Johnny signs on to help with the reconstruction of Iraq. He returns with a mangled arm. Depressed by disability, debt, drink, and a broken romance, Johnny takes his own life. Nell is devastated, overwhelmed by what she calls "a tsunami of the soul," and so is Michael Abrams (Steve Wire), Johnny's best friend.

The central paradox of Cries That Bind is a variation on the ancient admonition: "Physician, heal thyself." Nell is a psychiatrist who specializes in treating victims of depression, particularly traumatized veterans, yet she finds it hard to pull herself out of her own despondency over the death of her beloved brother. She explains to Johnny, who returns as a ghost to haunt her throughout the second act: "I have lost my joie de vivre." Michael, who becomes her lover, tries to restore it, but guilt over the fact that it was Johnny who brought the two together poisons their relationship. Alexis Trent (Heather Kelley), a fellow shrink, tries to get Nell to talk out her despair.

A decade in the making, Cries That Bind originated as Lifelines, a piece that Rinear wrote for students she was teaching at Reagan High School. She teaches now at Trinity University, and the work has evolved into an earnest exposition of a serious social problem. Because two of its five characters are psychotherapists, much of the play's dialogue consists of attempts to analyze motivations and reactions rather than dramatize them directly. The analysis is suffused with Freudian piety devoid of the wit that Freud himself brought to explorations of the unconscious. Nell's conversations with Alexis seem a theatrical convenience, a way of conveying blocks of information to the audience. Disclosing to Alexis a dark family secret, the probability that her father, like her brother, committed suicide, Nell suddenly realizes the reason she chose psychiatry as her vocation: "I had to discover why my father did that." The line is delivered categorically, without irony, as if merely stating an epiphany constitutes one — for the character or the audience. Nell's hobby is writing poetry, but her attempts at it are kitsch. It would be impertinent to compare Cries That Bind to one of Sam Shepard's ferocious, uproarious accounts of sibling rivalry and revelry — say, True West. But, in its flat recitation, this play itself seems devoid of joie de vivre, or at least a dramatist's joy in play.

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