“Lipstick Lobotomy” at Trap Door is both funny and painful as it takes us into a mental institution in 1940 with Rosemary Kennedy

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Trap Door Theatre.

Throughout the mid-to-late 20th Century, the Kennedys were easily the most famous family on this side of the Atlantic. Sometimes perceived as America’s “royal family,” they tapped into the country’s imagination with JFK’s rise to the Presidency in 1960 and remained firmly in the national zeitgeist for decades thereafter (maintaining their magnetic ability to draw our interest even today through next-gen family members—JFK’s daughter Caroline made headlines just this week for endorsing Joe Biden). But as has often been the case with other countries’ royals, this is a family known for its secrets and tragedies as much as its leadership and status. 

From the war death of Joe, Jr., to the assassinations of Jack and Bobby, to Teddy’s Chappaquiddick incident, to John, Jr.’s plane crash, the dark cloud of tragedy has always loomed over the family.  But it is the eldest daughter of Rose and Joseph Kennedy, whose mental issues led to her parents institutionalizing her, who may be the most tragic figure of them all, and she is the subject of Trap Door Theatre’s latest production, the imaginatively titled and whimsically macabre Lipstick Lobotomy

Lipstick Lobotomy was written by Krista Knight after discovering and reading several journals left by her great aunt, Virginia Harrison Hamman, describing her own depression and mental problems and her time in a sanitarium around the same time as Rosemary Kennedy. Though the two never met in real life, Knight’s play explores what might have happened if Ginny, who spent her life cultivating friendships with other women as her utmost goal, had been in the same institution as Rosemary. 

Directed by Kate Hendrickson, whose We Are Pussy Riot was a highlight last year at Red Tape Theatre, Lipstick Lobotomy stars Ann Sonneville as Ginny and Abby Blankenship as the doomed Rosemary, and both give outstanding performances. Sonneville’s layered portrayal of Ginny’s forward-thinking and optimistic attitude despite her depression makes her an impressive central character. Ginny, a playful and winning woman in her thirties, is at the Institute voluntarily so that she can try cutting-edge medical techniques in order to resolve the darkness in her mind. There she courts and acquires the friendship of the childlike Rosemary, whose occasional tantrums and explosions Blankenship plays directly and honestly, and they become good friends. Ginny even tries to help Rosemary with her lessons—her family has required the intellectually challenged girl to learn basic math, reading, and other subjects that might allow self-reliance before allowing her release—despite having to fight her friend’s stubborn recalcitrance at every turn.

When she hears about pre-frontal lobotomy surgery—a new and then-promising operation in the 1940 setting of the play—Ginny is desperate to have one. Her desire to try anything in order to be cured feels ominous to modern audiences who understand that lobotomies have become disparaged for leaving far too many patients (including Rosemary) in zombielike, nearly vegetative states, but Sonneville makes her desperation palpable, and Ginny doesn’t waver even after the operation fails with her friend. Violence designer Bill Gordon’s cringeworthy, graphic depictions of the lobotomies—the program includes a trigger warning about them—leave little to the imagination, and Rosemary’s arm dropping to the side as if she is dead is a powerful and lasting image, along with the expression on the face of Kirk Osgood’s surgeon when he realizes what has happened.

Hendrickson’s partially stylized direction includes carefully choreographed repetitive movements, ridiculous smile masks, and Brechtian scene placards (presented with much silliness) as well as a combination of characters who are outrageous (like Dennis Bisto’s absurd head doctor and the often-robotic patients of the Institute) and others who are realistic (like Ginny and Rosemary). Among the latter are visiting Kennedy brothers Jack (Osgood, encouraged to be as blatantly playful and flirtatious as possible) and Joe (Bisto filled in for Michael Mejia the night I saw the play), mothers Rose Kennedy and Reggie Harrison (both played by Ann James), sympathetic orderly Dick (Mejia/Bisto again), Ginny’s in-the-process-of-divorce husband Carl (Bob Wilson), Rosemary’s Irish nurse Dotty (Emily Lotspeich), Bisto’s Stuart (Ginny’s highly successful brother) and his fiancée Sue (Natara Easter). Eleanor Katz and Bernadetta Zawiejska are also among the patients, whose slow, meticulous pre-show movements turn out to reflect some of the “therapies” offered at the Institute. 

Lipstick Lobotomy isn’t a comfortable play, especially since we know what ends up happening to Rosemary, but Hendrickson and Trap Door make Knight’s homage to her great aunt a powerful and important one. It’s a far more straight-forward show than the adventurous Trap Door usually mounts, despite the stylized movements, and one that serves as a stark reminder of the terrible pain of mental illness and the awesome horrors that medical science has come up with over the years to deal with it. Especially when the sick person is female, doctors have again and again over centuries failed to understand and help, most often exacerbating the problem. Even in today’s more enlightened era, mental health care is often a crapshoot of “let’s try this drug and see if it helps,” and though lobotomies are very rare, electro-shock therapy—another means by which the brain is traumatized in an effort to help—is still frequently used, as seen in the musical Next to Normal. What we know about the mind pales next to what we still don’t know. Lipstick Lobotomy reminds us how far we have come from 1940…and how far we have to go.

Lipstick Lobotomy is now playing at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Courtland, Chicago, IL, until Mar 21. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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