David Roberts, Chief New York Critic
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s groundbreaking “On Death and Dying” was first published in 1969. The Grief Cycle outlined in this book remains the standard for understanding the “stages” of bereavement for those survivors of death. Milly Thomas’s “Dust” currently running at New York Theatre Workshop in the Fourth Street Theatre provides a new standard of understanding the stages of grief, one for those who have “passed on.” The power of this perspective cannot be underestimated, nor can the sheer emotional catharsis of Ms. Thomas’s performance be underappreciated or forgotten.
Unable to escape the depression that had already led Alice (Milly Thomas) to an earlier attempt at taking her own life, she commits suicide and undergoes twelve stages of grieving her own loss, beginning with the post-death awareness of her body being placed in a body bag in the hospital and then at the mortician’s as her body is being prepared for viewing. This unique perspective allows Alice to convey to the audience how she understands the significance of her death and how her life experiences might have contributed to her death. The protagonist is “allowed” to see afterward what might not have been seen (or denied) when living.
It is significant that Ms. Thomas has expanded Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: this bereavement is for the dead not the living and takes on the importance of any twelve-step program. There is anger at her mother, denial of the turning point she experienced, bargaining as she makes the decision about taking her own life (as her boyfriend Ben confuses prurience with compassion), and the acceptance of her choice to end her life – depression has been ever present for Alice in life, in death, and in life beyond death. There are also eight other stages (or scenes) of bereavement for Alice that would require a bevy of spoiler alerts and better experienced in the confines of the NYTW’s Fourth Street Theatre.
Much of the success of Ms. Thomas’s spellbinding monologue results from her impressive mastery of rhetorical skills. Mining the depths of logos, ethos, and pathos, the playwright uses a treasure trove of literary devices to parse the stages of grief experienced by her parents, her addicted brother Robbie, her best friend Ellie, her (cheating) lover Ben, and others who impacted her life – and continue to counterpoint her postmortem “existence.” The same techniques are used as Alice evaluates the meaning of her death and if suicide accomplished what she thought it might during her decision process. Further contributing to the success of the performance is the exacting and transmutive direction by Sara Joyce, Anna Reid’s surreal design, Jack Weir’s moody yet moodless lighting design, and Max Perryment’s ethereal sound design.
Additionally, there are rich allusions throughout the text, including the biblical references to death and resurrection: the gave cloth (body bag); the three days “in the tomb;” and the resurrection (“A Beginning”) itself. Milly Thomas’s script allows for a variety of interpretive lenses which allows for differing understandings and a variety of responses to the playwright’s enduring questions and the meanings of life and death and beyond.
Milly Thomas is a brilliant performer. It is impossible not to become deeply involved in her process of evaluating both her death and her life and how her suicide has impacted the lives of those she left behind and how those survivors think of her now that she has “passed.” “Dust” is both a memory play with Alice as the narrator and a psychological thriller that places the protagonist at the epicenter of a therapeutic session that spans present, past, and future. Just as Ms. Thomas is “watching” what her survivors are doing “without her,” she is transported through flashbacks to discover how those present behaviors are anchored in her past. This convention is brilliant and evolves over the course of the performance.
“Dust” is a remarkable vehicle for understanding some of the dynamics of suicide and should not be missed during its limited run in New York City. Perhaps the most clarifying – and yet disturbing – insight offered here is Alice’s recognition before her “decision” is rehearsed that, “All I wanted to say. All I really wanted to say is I can’t talk to anyone. I’m so very frightened of everyone. Because they’re healthy. Because they’re happy.” Exactly how profound that “confession” might take forever to comprehend.
“Dust” features design by Anna Reid, lighting design by Jack Weir, and sound design by Max Perryment and is produced by Ceri Lothian and Ramin Sabi for DEM Productions.
“Dust” runs at New York Theatre Workshop in the Fourth Street Theatre (79 East 4th Street) through Sunday September 29, 2019. Tickets can be purchased online at nytw.org, by phone at 212-460-5475, or in person the New York Theatre Workshop box office. For further information, visit https://www.nytw.org/show/dust/. Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission.
Photo: Milly Thomas in “Dust.” Credit: Richard Southgate.