Arlene Malinowski is such a charming person, greeting folks on the way into the theater, that it’s hard to imagine anything about her could be off; she has a big smile, bright lipstick the color of coral (she, a lipstick connoisseur, can tell you the exact shade) and a boisterous voice that makes her seem familiar, like a family member you met a long time ago and you’re not sure how you could ever have forgotten somebody you enjoyed so much.
“A Little Bit Not Normal” is about that off-ness that seems so dissociated from Malinowski. The title, a reference to her mother’s definition of Malinowski’s depression, signals what is at the center of her struggle: not only mental illness but the public and familial perception of it.
Malinowski clocks the play in at about an hour and twenty minutes. Beyond the physical endurance of any one-person show, she does not let up. Her imitations are precise vocally and physically. Her work as a seasoned actor is evident in the shifts between herself, her depression (characterized by a cigarette and a Texan drawl lopping out “baby girls”) and the menagerie of characters that fill her life. More importantly, she is charismatic and joyful even in the darkest moments of her story. Watching her talk and explore her journey is an act of play more than anything else.
Tearing down the medical institution and medication for depression aside, there is a vague saccharine note left in the wake. Occasionally dipping into clichés or soppy piano music isn’t a problem as much as it is a strange juxtaposition for a performance that is otherwise so precise and personal.
Those are nitpicks though. Malinowski’s sense of her story (not just the experience of depression but what it does to those close to her) is clear and she tells it with grace and humor that is never self-pitying only self-aware. (Jay Van Ort)
Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln, (773)871-3000,$20. Through June 2.