I WAS MISLED. NORTHWEST ACTORS Studio does look like a theater, and my group was seated in front of an Astroturf garden that looked like a set. We even got "play" programs. After two and a half hours in this theatrical straitjacket, however, I'm now certain that Crazy Eights Theater Company's production of Woman in Mind is actually an experiment in the new aversion staging method. As an involuntary test subject, I feel deeply violated, and plan to organize a class-action lawsuit unless Crazy Eights produces a waiver form for future performances: "I, the undersigned, agree to participate in this staged endurance test in the interest of establishing standards for acceptable levels of audience suffering."

Alan Ayckbourn, a British wunderplaywright, wrote this bleak comedy about English middle-class life in 1985, back when other Brits writing bleak comedies about English life, such as Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton, and Tom Stoppard, were all the rage here. Unlike the others, however, Ayckbourn doesn't know when to stop, as Woman in Mind demonstrates. This play, about a 50ish woman's unsatisfying family life and her subsequent loss of sanity, offers a measure of complexity and formal experimentation. Unfortunately, Ayckbourn can't curb the fear that audiences just won't "get it." So after each hallucination, a dysfunctional character explains that the dysfunctional protagonist was, in fact, hallucinating.

Ayckbourn doesn't know when to end his play, either. About 90 minutes in, the play has made its point with the subtlety of a wrecking ball to the temporal lobe, and begins to wind down -- we think. But just as we're lulled into a false sense of conclusion, yet another scene unwinds. These scenes add nothing to the story, but we get one more hour of them, anyway.

If this wasn't torture enough, inexperienced director Scott Morrison adds stagnant pacing, aimless blocking, and actors who are out of their depth. As the play's protagonist, Susan, Traci Timmons shows potential, but at half Susan's age and a current range of little more than a tight smile, a rolling eye, and a volume increase when needed, she doesn't have the tools to pull Susan off. Only David Szondy as Bill and Shana Bestock as Muriel give entertaining performances, even though they're also decades too youthful for their roles. Ultimately, I came close to following Susan's descent into madness. During the prolonged scream that brings an end to the agony, it took all the control I could muster not to go screaming into the night myself.

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