Friday, September 6, 2019

DUST: Harrowing Play About a Young Woman’s Death By Suicide and the Aftermath

Milly Thomas Stars in her Play, DUST
Photo by Emilio Madrid-Kuser

I don't want you to be gobsmacked if you should happen to wander unprepared into the intimate Next Door @NYTW theater space in New York City's East Village, where Milly Thomas's discomfiting play Dust opened last night. So before I get into talking about the quality of the writing and of the solo performance by its creator (both are stunning, in every sense of the word), I feel it is important to let you know that the subject matter is inherently disturbing. It is about a young woman who has taken her own life. 

To be sure, there have been many other plays in which there is a suicide as part of the plot. From Ophelia's death in Hamlet to Connor Murphy's death in Dear Evan Hansen, we learn of their passing as recounted by others. But with Dustwritten and acted by London-based writer and performer Milly Thomas, we spend an uninterrupted 75 minutes with a young woman named Alice who is already dead by her own hand when the play opens.   

Dust begins with a deep and ominous thrumming sound, a flashing of lights, and a jolting bang. Then Ms. Thomas,  dressed in a body stocking, enters and stands beside a metal clinical table looking down at a corpse -- her  corpse, as it happens.  "I think this is the end," she says. But apparently it is not -- at least, not yet.  

She lingers over the preparation of her body, fascinated yet a little perturbed about what the morticians are doing to her, before leaving in order to eavesdrop on her family and friends. You might think of Emily from Our Town, but it's not quite in that realm. For one thing, Alice is quite a bit more egocentric, and she observes everyone else -- her parents, her aunt, her brother, her boyfriend, and her closest friend -- with a jaundiced eye.

She can be bitingly sarcastic and judgmental in her appraisal of their behavior in the time before and during her funeral. And she is quite intrusive on their private conversations and personal activities, including sexual ones which she is happy to describe in graphic terms. It's as if she were saying, how dare they get on with their own lives!

The one thing she doesn't talk about much, however, is her own state of mind that led her to take her life. Only in bits and pieces do we grow to understand that she had long suffered from depression, and that the various treatments (she provides a long list of medications) were not effective. If there is any comfort to be found, it is in our coming to grips with the realization that suicide was a supreme act of will for Alice, the sole action over which she had control in a life that was irredeemably out of control.    

Milly Thomas has written and performs Dust with a great depth of understanding of Alice's plight. She paints an unflinching portrait both of someone whose unfixable pain lacks an identifiable source and of a young woman who in life undoubtedly made it difficult for others to be around her. It is a remarkably powerful play, and Ms. Thomas performs with unflinching surgical precision. Whether this is enough to get you past the subject matter is something I will leave to you to decide.  


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