The last work by the British playwright Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis, aggressively resists staging. Calling it a "play" is misleading—the text names no characters and has almost no stage directions. It better resembles free verse than drama, and gives no clues as to how it should be staged. The subject is the horror of living with mental illness, both for the afflicted and those who are charged with curing them, the effects of psychiatric medications and the condition of despair. It is about as difficult a work as one can imagine.
Completed just weeks before Kane hanged herself, at the age of 28, the play is frequently interpreted as a suicide note. But that does not do the text justice. Certainly, suicide is mentioned frequently—"At 4.48/ when desperation visits/ I shall hang myself/ to the sound of my lover's breathing" is a representative passage—but 4.48 Psychosis is not a defense or an apology. It is very plainly a work of art, overshadowed by the circumstances of its creation, but capable of standing on its own.
Transforming Kane's collection of poems and sketches into a coherent work of theater requires heroic effort from the director, but Grace Carter and Defunkt are up to the task. Carter and her cast (Christy Bigelow, Joel Harmon and Matthew Kern) have spent five months working over the text, parsing characters and scenes and uncovering the deliberate structure of the work. They come up with three speakers, loosely representing the self, the others and a third-person narrator, bringing intense focus to Kane's more straightforward scenes and accessorizing the freeform passages with repeated movement—graceful tics of the hands and head. They have made sense from delirium.
The work of the actors is greatly aided by Defunkt's designers. Bill Tripp's set explodes Back Door Theater, chopping the audience into three wedges and splashing white paint up the walls, making the notoriously claustrophobic space feel open, if not quite airy. Lori Sue Hoffman's costumes are understated with one vital, violent detail, and their muted tones and Emily Stadulis' shifty lighting make the actors seem to fade in and out of focus. The effect is, like the work itself, at once lovely and terribly sad.
The Back Door Theater, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 481-2960. 8 pm Thursdays-Sundays. Closes April 10. $10-$15.