Living with a mental illness is like dancing the tango with a partner who isn’t interested in doing it well. They’re simply interested in doing the dance regardless of your comfort. They’ll stomp on your toes, totally lose your rhythm and, every once in a while, you’ll hit a stride and be the best dancer you’ve ever been. It is in that symbiotic give-and-take that “Tru” thrives. It’s rare that mental illness is ever portrayed as anything but debilitating when, in truth, not every day is the worst day ever.
David Gosz and Leo Fotos’ new musical focuses on the toxic relationship between a young man named Truman (or Tru) and Her, his mental illness. They sleep together, hang out together and look at the stars together. They also push people away together, shut out the world together and down entire bottles of wine together. The arrival of Isla (Shannon McEldowney), Tru’s neighbor Gail’s granddaughter, only further complicates his relationship with Her. Isla becomes, as her name implies, an island for Tru.
What works at a disadvantage for this production is the theater itself. Gosz and Fotos’ music, with their brilliant band, drowns out the actors on a regular basis. The dramatic swells swallow entire song segments whole and the duo’s lyricism is lost to the rafters. It’s hard to tell at times if the lyrics are simply too tongue-tying to maneuver for some of the performers or if the music has overwhelmed them as well and they can’t hear themselves sing. Either way, it’s a shame to lose such wide swathes of the show.
What isn’t lost is the emotional range of Stephen “Blu” Allen as Tru and Meredith Kochan as Her. I have never seen a relationship play out so succinctly, even in interpretive dance. The dichotomy of these two as a unit is heartbreaking and all too familiar. For the first time, as a person who lives with depression and anxiety, I felt seen.
When I spoke with Gosz and Fotos a few months ago, I mentioned “Next to Normal” as one of the only musical points of reference in terms of mental health. They said it was the comparison they got a lot but the shows are different. They’re absolutely right. “Normal” demonstrates the earthquake effects of mental illness on those around us, but “Tru” shows the effects of mental illness on the person living with it. Yes, it’s clear that there are effects on others as well, but the focus is on Tru. We see firsthand the fight for strength against Her as well as panic attacks gracefully choreographed by intimacy and violence choreographer Gaby Labotka.
To see Tru struggle against Her is painful at times, but it’s a story as true as I could hope.
That’s where the power of “Tru” comes from, the evolving nature of Tru and Her’s relationship. In the first act, it feels like the story is being pulled between Tru’s friends’ lives and his own. At over two-and-a-half hours, “Tru” could use some tightening. The production finally finds its groove by act two, but there are some pieces that could be trimmed or cut entirely. Except anything featuring marssie Mencotti as Gail. Leave the flower-shop lady alone! She is the delightful grandmotherly figure we need in the world.
It took Lin-Manuel Miranda seven years to get “Hamilton” to production level and that was after he received accolades for “In the Heights.” Gosz and Fotos have the start of something really great with “Tru.” It’s a story that needs telling but, as any writer will tell you (myself included), it’s important to trim the fat. I, for one, can’t wait to see how this show grows. (Amanda Finn)
Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont, (773)327-5252, goszandfotos.com, $30. Through November 24.