There are currently no genetic tests for psychiatric disorders. Maybe someday. But that's a question, isn't it? You've witnessed your brother/mother/aunt struggle for years with ADHD/schizophrenia/OCD. It's woven into the fabric of their character. And you love them. But would you do what you could to prevent passing that gene on to your own child?
This is the central question of A Simple Theatre's inaugural production at Eckerd College's Bininger Theatre. Dorothy Fortenberry's powerful Good Egg unfolds in a blandly pleasant living room with couch and arm chair. This serves as the play's only set, but also as metaphor. First it is older sister Meg's (Meg Heimstead) womb, a comfortable but empty space awaiting tenants in the form of in vitro fertilization. And later, once mussed and cluttered with unfinished projects, it represents the mind of bipolar younger brother Matt (Chris Jackson).
When we first meet Matt he fills the intimate black box theater set up within the Bininger (really a small theater within the larger theater) with vivacious boyishness. He's come, lured by popcorn, hot cocoa and a DVD of Singin' in the Rain, to hear Meg's news: No man in her life, she's decided to have a baby the newfangled way.
Heimstead (a Tampa Bay veteran from American Stage and Freefall) plays the dutiful first born with long-suffering dignity. She's always done the right thing, taking care of her brother after the death of their mother and the suicide of their bipolar father. But now it's time for her dreams.
Matt, played by Jackson as an ever-more-coiled spring, antically embraces the idea: a niece or a nephew to teach and to love. But his feelings sour quickly as he realizes that, while Meg's sperm donor looks a lot like himself and their dad, she will implant only an embryo that tests negative for manic depression.
What follows is a vivid window into bipolar disorder not unlike Kay Jamison's seminal An Unquiet Mind, which is both academic examination and memoir. Matt, forgoing his meds, becomes more and more unmanageable as Meg's implantation date approaches. With leg tremors, grandiose plans and hair that could use a good washing, Jackson plays it brilliantly. Heimstead's role is quieter, often performed in schlumpy pajamas or printed hospital gown, but she conveys the silent elegiac lament of a witness to her 50th train wreck. She knows how this plays out, and it isn't going to be pretty.
Interestingly, the play's director and Simple Theatre's artistic director Gavin Hawk describes Good Egg as a dramedy in the playbill. Alright, there are moments of humor (as in Matt's memory of the dad buying him a huge sack of fortune cookies on a wild midnight ride to Lake Michigan), but inevitably it turns painful (the fortune cookies "turned out to be kind of terrible. … If you can have anything you want, anything you get" ends up disappointing, he muses).
After a violent climax, the audience is left to consider issues of bioethics: Just how much should we be able to choose about our progeny? The play's title refers to both Meg's family role as "good egg" as well as to her desire for eggs free of the family curse (a malady Matt sees as the source of his strength and individuality). Kind of like most family interactions, eggs are broken in Good Egg, but it's unclear whether any omelets have been made.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @LReiley on Twitter.