Overflowing with Emptiness
A Play About a Woman Stuck on the Toilet
I used to know a guy who grew up on the tough side of Kansas City and spent a chunk of his adolescence hanging out with punk-rock drug addicts. One of my friend's friends—let's call him Eddie—used to spend days at a time in the bathroom with his meth pipe, his gun, and a TV playing nonstop pornography. Eddie would sit for marathon stretches, smoking speed and beating off, threatening to shoot anyone who knocked on the door. I asked my friend how he felt about Eddie at the time. He said: "It seems crazy now. But at the time, it just seemed like Eddie."
That's the central idea in Stuck, a new play by Jessica Hatlo about a woman who won't (and then can't) get off the toilet.
The set is a filthy studio apartment that is, in the script's words, "in a US city that is somewhere in the middle and nothing special." In the main room: stacks of boxes, a tattered love seat, strewn clothes, stained comforters, empty plastic bottles, empty plastic cups, empty envelopes with glassine windows (bills), empty egg crates, empty pizza boxes, empty bags of chips—the apartment is packed to the ceiling with emptiness.
In the bathroom: Amy (Kay Nahm) dozes on the toilet in front of a droning TV, inset in the wall. She wears a hoodie, pajama bottoms, and a blanket over her lap. Her pants are partway down—we can see a bit of her flanks peeking behind the blanket. Amy hasn't left the bathroom in almost a year and hasn't stood up for more than a month. Other than that, she seems fine: just any other young American who likes her bong hits, daytime TV, and snack food.
Her boyfriend, Danny (Alex Matthews), works at a pizza place and runs their household errands—mostly for Doritos and soda. Sometimes he sleeps with her in the bathroom. When he has to piss, he uses the shower. When he has to shit, he runs down to the AM/PM. When he really has to shit, this happens:
Danny: I have to shit.
Amy: Why didn't you go at work?
Danny: What? I just told you.
Amy: Can't you run to the AM/PM?
Danny: It's a now. An emergency! UP!
She doesn't get up; he gets creative. It's gross, but they soon forget about it and settle back into their pizza and TV.
Stuck is based on a real-life event, mentioned in The Stranger's Last Days column in 2008, about a child-abuse survivor who lived like Amy—on the toilet, with the help of a tragically accommodating boyfriend—until her skin fused to the toilet seat and had to be surgically removed.
Hatlo starts with this shocking premise and works backward. She tries to humanize it, coaxing us to look through her characters' eyes and understand how they allowed themselves to slip into this horrifying circumstance. The story should resonate with anyone who's let a problem go bad, inch by innocuous inch: a relationship, a debt, a substance-abuse problem, a job, a lie.
Nahm normalizes Amy with an artfully offhanded performance. Amy dismisses moments that threaten her cognitive dissonance with a psychological flick of the wrist. In one great exchange, she manipulates Danny into changing the channel for her, hiding her inability to stand up and reach the television under a facade of lazy entitlement.
Meanwhile, Danny has to venture forth day after day, trying to square his home life with the rest of the world. As his landlady (Jill Snyder-Marr) begins to inquire after his peculiar lifestyle—the garbage, Amy's apparent disappearance—Danny begins telling lies, and we watch him buckle under their accumulated weight.
Supporting actors Qadriyyah Shabazz and Chris Maslen play a series of Amy's TV fever dreams: Oprah, Dr. Phil, Simon Cowell, Ms. Cleo. Their impersonations are funny but feel like a playwright's insecurity, as if the playwright lost her nerve and threw in some unnecessary pop-culture distractions. Hatlo's insecurity is partly justified: Danny and Amy aren't quite complete. In a few scenes, Danny's credulity is painfully improbable. But people like Amy (and Eddie) really exist—there's deep American poetry in the idea of people who take their TVs, retreat to the bathroom, and lock themselves inside that flimsy fortress. A little more work on the couple's history and rapport could take Stuck to the end zone.