“Hysterical!” Focuses on a Medical Mystery Affecting Three Teen Girls

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By Karen Isaacs

At the beginning of Hysterical! the second play in repertory at Thrown Stone Theatre in Ridgefield through Saturday, Aug. 6, I thought it was just going to be another teenage “mean girls” drama.

But as it went on, I found myself both absorbed by the work and involved with these characters. This is due to the fine cast and director Tracy Brigden, as well as the play itself by Elenna Stauffer.

The play opens with five high school girls cheering on their football team featuring typical words, phrases and moves. Immediately afterward one of the girls (Mia) begins repeating one of the words and gestures in the cheer. She can’t seem to stop and the other girls are bewildered – is this a joke? It is almost like a hiccup – just when it seems to have gone, it comes back.

Finally, the girls decide to take her to the hospital. (The totally unbelievably part is that there are no adults anywhere around – no cheerleading coach, football staff, trainers or school officials).

The team continues, but a few days later the captain of the team (Shannon) develops a different physical and vocal tic. What is going on? Weeks later, a third girl (Charlotte) develops her own tic.

The doctors are puzzled. No medical reason can be found. Is it a reaction to stress? Emotional problems – at least two of the girls have a less than ideal family life? Or that all fallback – hysteria?.

Toward the end of the play, in a very obvious move, the author has one of the girls tell another that her English class is not reading “The Crucible” this year. Duh? Did the author think we wouldn’t think of that play as were watching the show?

It is interesting to remember that the word “hysteria” is from the Greek word for uterus; there are mentions of as far back as 1900 BC. For centuries it was thought to be a physical condition in women. The condition is today called conversion disorder and is defined as a condition often brought on by stress or trauma where the person exhibits visceral, sensory and vasomotor disturbances.

We never learn what may have triggered the condition in these girls or why three developed it within such a short time period. Eventually two recover; but for one, the symptoms never completely disappear.

We see how the other girls react to the situation and we hear how the adults are responding.

As I was watching these events – parents want to ban the affected girls from attending school, other students are afraid to be near the girls – you can’t help but see the connection to the recent Covid pandemic, and even more so, to the early days of the AIDS crises. Plus of course, there is the connection to the girls in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

The girls themselves have varied reactions – from Madison, a senior who seems totally centered on herself exhibiting little compassion or even kindness to Maddie the sole freshman on the team who handles the whole thing with more calmness and maturity than the others.

Slowly you develop compassion for the three girls affected. Shannon has her senior year as captain disrupted; Mia, the first to exhibit symptoms, is made fun of; and Charlotte (a junior) is permanently damaged by the ordeal.

The play itself focuses mainly on the first months of the event, but eventually skips ahead one and then three years.

Most of the actresses are in their early twenties and for the most part, they capture the spirit of these younger girls. As the somewhat catty Madison, Kendyl Grace Davis eventually lets us see the reasons for her behavior. My heart was most drawn to Julia Crowley as Charlotte and Isa Muiño as Mia, the cheerleader the girls don’t really respect.

Both Shannon Helene Barnes (Maddie) and Olivia Billings (Shannon) played totally different personality types than in Athena. It was good to see their range.

Hysterical indirectly raises very interesting issues. Why is it easy for people to assume that with young girls and women, physical ailments aren’t real or are attention-getting?

For tickets visit ThrownStone.org

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