The subject matter isn’t new: Sally Field introduced many of us to multiple personalities in the movie version of this story many moons ago and Toni Collette more recently wowed us with her “alters” in United States of Tara. But what does make Sybil, A Musical noteworthy, (besides the blistering tornado of a performance by Melissa van der Schyff) is the perspective in which the creative team, led by experienced director Stephen Nachamie, tell this story. While the main premise of Sybil, A Musical, is the introduction and analysis of a young woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder, composer Alan Cancelino, book writer and lyricist Owen Robertson, along with Nachamie have purposefully crafted the piece to draw our attention to the abuse and bullying that created the defense mechanism manifested in Sybil’s others. With women’s rights, children’s rights and lgbt rights constantly in the headlines, the decision to focus on abuses and bullying by parents is most definitely a timely one and counters what some in theatrical criticism might deem a dated story.
Our musical journey begins with a very young Sybil and her frighteningly pious parents who, not so ironically, are anything but pious. Young Sybil, portrayed here by a charming and innocent Raquel Wallace, sings of “Colored Pencils”; shadows of the multi-colored world that lies ahead and also of the talented artist Sybil would become. We then flash forward to Sybil as a young adult working with psychoanalyst Cornelia Wilbur, played with heart wrenching honesty by the always brilliant Liz Callaway. Sybil is set to travel away with Dr. Wilber for treatment, but Sybil’s mother sabotages the trip and the relationship between patient and doctor is shattered for years. Sybil’s parents, the convincingly sinister Eadie Scott as Haddie and the hen-pecked Willard played by Michael David Brown sing “Two Roads,” an almost religious anthem that speaks of a road for the righteous and a road for the wicked. But Sybil finds a way, with the help of her alters, to choose her own road that takes her to New York City where she moves in with roommate Teddy, realized with a wonderful sense of truth and compassion by Allison Linker. She also reconnects with Dr. Wilbur. The meat of Act 1 is our introduction to Sybil’s other selves (“What am I”) and a much more clear sense of the horrors Sybil endured at the hands of her mother Hattie, (“Willow Corners”) that leads to Sybil’s protective creation of other personalities. Act 2 is a feverish sequence of intense scenes and songs bringing us into the world of analysis where Sybil begins to comprehend her disorder and works to understand her “alters” and the role each has played in her development. One alter is her mathematical mind; another is a french woman who is worldly and carefree. The analysis and wild ride we experience in the scenes with Dr. Wilber is balanced quite aptly with the “normalcy” she has created with her roommate; allowing us to observe that Sybil is more than just a sum of her broken parts. van der Schyff as Sybil represents her own personality changes in a majority of text and song, but her personalities are also revealed to us by a chorus of actors (nine in all) who circle behind her at times so that we are aware they have different faces. This collective of misfit toys occasionally sings with Sybil and has some very brief text of their own at the end. Ultimately, as Dr. Wilbur encourages Sybil to “Take Control” she is successful in re-integrating all of these personalities back into the true Sybil. We come full circle as Sybil puts all of her colored pencils back in the box with “Blue is the Color of Love.”
The Provincetown Theater’s Sybil, A Musical, was presented on October, 23 2013 as a workshop production with scripts in hand as part of a new annual musical workshop conceived by Cancelino. As with any new piece, the biggest challenges often lie with the beginning and the end, and that holds true here as well. My major criticism however, is with the use of an ensemble cast to portray Sybil’s other personalities, which poses both a practical dilemma and an artistic one. Practically, a musical ensemble of this size that is this underused makes the show financially challenging for most regional or commercial producers. Moreover, when the lead actress is deft at switching in and out of her personalities and creating physical and vocal distinctions with an ease that would put Dr. Jekyll to shame, the representative actors behind Sybil ultimately serve as a distraction and not a clarification or enhancement.
As mentioned above, Melissa van der Schyff is a wonder to behold! She is in one moment horrifying, the next, hysterical, and the next, hauntingly sad and tragic. She is clearly a powerhouse vocalist, but moreover and most important for a dramatic story like this, she is a remarkable actress. She takes us on a journey that is so filled with the essence of these “alters” that we can’t help but laugh with them and cry with them and rage with them. The bulk of the show is with Sybil and Dr. Wilbur, and that is a blessing. These scenes make us lose track of time and space and give us a strong sense that this show has the potential to be a success as a fully realized production for a wide audience. The scenes with her roommate are also crucial to balance out the limitations of a world with only a couch and a chair. There are ways within a scene design (such as hanging paintings or framed photos) to represent Sybil’s many personalities without taking away from the hearty story that the creative team have realized with just these three women: doctor, patient and friend. If the producers are able to keep Calloway, van der Schyff and Linker, I’m not sure they need much more to make this fly…Bravo to all three women on their work here and to the creative team and The Provincetown Theater for giving us such promising and thought provoking art!