Playwright: Kelvin Roston, Jr. At: Congo Square Theatre at Athenaeum Studio 2, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: 773-935-6875; www.congosquaretheatre.org; $19.50-$37. Runs through: June 14
The reel-to-reel tape recorders, the old radio and the hero wearing modified Superfly clothes were sufficient evidence that Twisted Melodies was set in the '70s. Then the hero began to sing and it was clear that it was Donny Hathaway, a titan of soul whose music was part of my young adulthood, but whose voice and name I'd not conjured in several decades. Eventually the play reminded me that Hathaway died young in 1979, only 33 and at the peak of his success as a Grammy-winning composer, arranger, singer and producer. What I didn't know is that Hathaway was a paranoid schizophrenic who committed suicide.
This world premiere hopes to bring attention to issues of mental health, and to dispel the social taint still far too often associated with emotional illnesses. Instead of being about mental health, however, it's a one-man portrait of Hathaway as patient and victim of an insidious illness. It's written and performed by musical-theater veteran Kelvin Roston Jr., and one couldn't find a more outstanding actor and singer to channel Donny Hathaway. Roston more than has the musical and dramatic chops to ignite Hathaway's musical hits and suggest his difficult personality. He's assisted by a wonderful multi-media production pulled off in a tiny, tiny theatre ( lighting, scenery, projections, video and dance by Richard Norwood, Andrei Onegin, Paul Deziel, Dre Robinson and esteemed choreographer Joel Hall ). It's rich, complex, beautiful.
Despite these strengths, the show feels long at about 100 minutes straight through. The symptoms of Hathaway's illnessresearched by Roston and accurate, according to the accounts we havequickly become repetitive. Each cycle of attack and recovery becomes a cueperhaps merely an excusefor Roston to perform another song. Also, Hathaway was not the first artist who had to choose between taking his meds and losing his muse through drastic personality change, or skipping the meds to remain a creative and productive artist. It's a horrendous choice, to be sure, but not entirely unique. Roston and director Samuel G. Roberson Jr. need to be severe with themselves in order to make Twisted Melodies as effective as it might be.
My mother had a close first cousin who was a pioneering psychiatrist and hypnotherapist in Chicago. Because of him, I grew up in a home that understood emotional illnesses were not signs of weakness or cowardice or self-indulgence, and that they could be as terrifying as they sometimes are inexplicable. Indeed, my grandfather committed suicide. A wise man once said to me that it takes a brave individual to confront his/her emotional issues and seek help for them. Twisted Melodies serves as a potent reminder of this as we ride Donny Hathaway's roller-coaster.