Mondays with Mike: Great for Otto

December 21, 2015 • Posted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized by

This holiday season has me more moody than I can ever remember at this time of year. Part of it is just missing departed loved ones more. And then, well, just about everything going on in the world seems to be stupid right about now.

So early Saturday afternoon, as we rode the Blue Line to The Gift Theater in Jefferson Park, I wondered if attending “Good for Otto” — a play that focuses on people’s struggles with depression and other mental health challenges — was such a good idea.

A scene from "Good for Otto."

A scene from “Good for Otto.”

It turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.

First, the backstory. Beth’s posted here before about The Gift Theater, and its co-founder Michael Patrick Thornton. The short of it is, Thornton befriended the renowned Tony-winning playwright David Rabe years ago. And when Rabe wrote “Good for Otto,” he chose to make its world premiere not in New York, not at the Goodman or Steppenwolf here in Chicago, but at The Gift.

The theater itself is tiny. It’s a storefront theater, to be sure — but it must have been a very small store. The production features an alley set — that is, a bank of people (two rows here) sit on one side of the stage, and two rows sit opposite. Each side of the audience faces the other as the players carry on in the middle. And you do see each other’s reactions.

The main stage was the same floor our chairs sat on. One of the therapist’s chair used throughout the performance sat not four feet from Beth and me, and we had to mind our own dogs not to obstruct actors as they came and went.

And they came and went in that tiny space a lot  — 15 of them — impossibly and gracefully thanks to an ingenious loft staging.

I’ll spare details —  not for fear of letting a spoiler out — it’s not the kind of play that can be spoiled. I’ll say this: It runs three hours. I never last three hours at these things. But I wanted the intermission to end so I could get back to all these people. They are troubled. But there are laughs. A lot of them, and they’re all laugh with but not at.

Don’t take my word for it  — read this glowing review in the NY Times  — yes the Times had a reviewer go to a theater that holds 47 people and is located in a relatively obscure (but charming) neighborhood in Chicago. Even better (to us locals) is Chris Jones’ review in the Chicago Tribune.

If you’re in the Chicago area and love theater, go. It’s a gift (sorry). And it’s been extended until February 7.

If you’re not a theater buff but have experienced depression or other mental health struggles  — or have been close to someone who has (in other words, everybody else on earth): Go!

In the play’s array of portrayals of struggling characters you may well see bits and pieces of yourself or a loved one or friend who has struggled in the same ways. And that may be uncomfortable, but to me — and clearly it was  for other audience members  — it was an opportunity to connect, and to not feel alone.

More than anything, for people who have struggled with mood issues or brain chemistry, the play makes clear that the struggle is worth it.

Happy Holidays everyone.

Carole Howard On December 21, 2015 at 9:59 am

Beth, even though you and I haven’t been able to get together, I do follow what’s going on in the theaters. For about ten years I have been a Saints usher until it became necessary for me to use a walker. So I have a personal interest here.

We met at the ADA meeting at Chase Bank this past October. For 20 or 30 years I have been involved in administration of a support group for individuals affected by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Chemical Sensitivity. When I responded to your post in October, I think you mixed me up with another Carole. I am also a long time member of the Lincoln Park Village and have followed your teaching career involving memoir writing.

When we met at the bank, you had mentioned that you had a course open in a library which is almost free. I think there is a book or two in me and I need to learn to write appropriately. For years I have been voraciously reading talking books from the special program at the Chicago library.

At some time, we should meet for lunch in the area; I use a walker to help me keep my balance so I patronize restaurants which are accessible.

Carole Howard

Dean Fischer On December 21, 2015 at 10:01 am

Well said. Coming from a family with long time hereditary depression, and having been on antidepressants for 30 years, I agree that it is worth the ride.

Mike On December 21, 2015 at 1:00 pm

Thanks Dean, and thanks for the openness, which I believe goes a long way toward helping other people.

Carole Howard On December 21, 2015 at 10:09 am

You got my attention… I’ll take PACE to get to the Gift Theater.

Carole Howard 773.883.1443

Laura Gale On December 21, 2015 at 10:32 am

Thanks for adding your review to the others, Mike. I am so happy that you made it up to Jeff Park to see the show, and even happier that you enjoyed it so much!

Mike On December 21, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Great to see you two afterward and appreciate all the work you do for The Gift.

Michael Patrick Thornton On December 21, 2015 at 11:10 am

Thanks so much for this thoughtful, response. I’m a big fan of Beth’s. I directed the play, and reading this post was a great reminder of art’s unique power to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Thanks to everyone for making the journey over landscapes geographic, emotional, and psychological. YOU are the gift.
Much love, and have a safe and joyous holiday season.

Michael Patrick Thornton
Artistic Director
The Gift

Mike On December 21, 2015 at 1:04 pm

Michael, this was our second visit to The Gift, fully enjoyed both of them. We went to the matinee and we were both astounded to think that the cast would be doing it again that evening. I don’t know how you all do it, but glad you do.

Pam Berman On December 21, 2015 at 11:48 pm

Mike, thanks for your blog post today. You echo exactly how I’m feeling this holiday season + I appreciate highlighting mental health issues. If it’s talked about it is not so scary, bad or wrong. Seems we all either are dealing with depression, OCD, ADHD, etc. Thanks for letting us know about a great sounding show & a theater I had no idea of. Seasons Greetings to you!

Benita Black On December 22, 2015 at 10:42 am

Would love to see it. I strongly believe that art should do that very thing…disturb the comfortable. It’s the chief reason I attend theater. Thank you, once again, Mike, for keeping it real, especially at this most highly plastic time of year.

Deborah Darsie On December 23, 2015 at 9:08 pm

I cannot make the commute to Chicago…the round-trip from Seattle or Portland is a killer!

I will have to keep an eye out for Otto in the Seattle venues.
I have a chronic low-grade depression…and some years are a LOT harder than others, despite pharm & therapy.

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