Lipstick Lobotomy, written by Krista Knight and directed by Kate Hendrickson, takes place in a women’s sanitarium in the early 1940’s, conveyed here by a delightfully unsettling green-and-white color palette across the production that evokes the eerie sanitized atmosphere of a hospital. We meet our main character, Ginny (Ann Sonnevile), as she arrives at the hospital straight off the heels of separating from her husband. Ginny immediately meets and befriends fellow patient Rosemary Kennedy (played with a lovable charm by Abby Blankenship, and who is, yes, of those Kennedys). Rosemary struggles with her own mental disability, and against her family’s desire to make her undergo a lobotomy, while Ginny undergoes the opposite struggle. She wants to get a lobotomy in order to stave off her lifelong depression, but her family is understandably horrified at the prospect.
The show is a dramatization of actual history: Ginny is based on playwright Krista Knight’s actual great-aunt, who kept journals of her time at the sanitarium. This adherence to real life is perhaps responsible for my biggest criticism, which is that most of the plot happens in the last third of the script. As a result, the first two thirds — while they contain good setups, lovable characters, hilarious jokes, and a delightful mix of whimsy and terror — often feel static, unmoving, and difficult to follow. To be fair, compartmentalizing several years of one’s own painful family history, and then distilling it into a digestible ninety-minute chunk, is by no means an easy task.
There is plenty of wonderful craft to discuss here. The set from designer Jacqueline Frole consists of wooden bars, boxes, and steps set at perfect right angles to each other, suggesting rigidity while serving the function of a jungle gym. Actors sit, climb, jump, hang, and hide all across the imposing structure, juxtaposing the playfulness of the story with the constricting expectations of the era. The costumes (Rachel Sypniewski) are subtle but delightful; most everybody is in flowy, white, 40’s-style hospital jumpsuits — but several members of the ensemble pop in and out of the story as different characters by adding simple flourishes like jackets, coats, and hats. The ensemble does excellent work here as they switch between characters at a rapid pace — Ann James in particular deserves special mention, playing both Rosemary’s mother as strict, uptight, and high-class, and Ginny’s mother as compassionate, caring, and stressed.
The central idea presented here is a fascinating one. Namely, the gendered way that we imagine mental health (more pronounced in the 1940’s but certainly still present in modern times) is often just a repackaging of patriarchal violence, with convenient medical jargon. This concept is mostly funneled through Ginny. Ann Sonneville plays Ginny with a fascinating sort of straight-backed, trans-Atlantic, forced dignity, giving her the aura of a prim and proper housewife even as she exhibits none of the requisite behaviors. And strangely, most of the misogynistic and horrifying worldviews expressed in the play come right out of Ginny’s mouth, likely internalized over many years. It is both entrancing and heartbreaking to watch.
The lack of forward momentum in the first half works against the show’s emotional pace. By the time we reach the tightening vice of the story’s climax, complete with moments of medical horror choreographed with painful realism by violence/intimacy designer Bill Gordon, the tension doesn’t feel quite earned. Still, Lipstick Lobotomy is worth seeing for the excellent dialogue, delightful humor and heart, and important observations about misogyny and mental illness.
Director: Kate Hendrickson
Playwright: Krista Knight
Assistant Director/Choreographer: Miguel Long
Rehearsal SM: Tara Malpass
Production SM: Anna Klos
Dramaturg: Milan Pribisic
Set Designer: Jacqueline Frole
Light Designer: Richard Norwood
Sound Designer: Mike Mazzocca
Costume Designer: Rachel Sypniewski
Fight and Intimacy Director: Bill Gordon
Assistant Fight Choreographer: Ari Kraiman
Dialect Coach: Tiffany Bedwell
Props Designer: Jon Beal
Make-Up Designer: Zsofia Otvos
Graphic Designer: Michal Janicki