"Sister Calling My Name" Highlights Mental Disabilities

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Photo by Michael Abrams

Living with a person who is developmentally disabled and also suffers from schizophrenia can be a challenge. Most common in people with learning disabilities its symptoms include suspicion, social isolation, anxiety and bizarre behavior. This oftentimes results in social, economic and functional impairment. Some families consider having to deal with a person with these issues a curse rather than a blessing because it requires expensive medical care, patience, and unconditional love. Families feel overwhelmed and ofttimes unable to meet the needs of the mentally impaired. Therefore, treatment is left to those who can intervene with pharmaceutical and psycho-social therapies. Too often those suffering from severe mental disabilities are institutionalized wherein they can fall between the cracks of the system and be subject to all manner of abuse. This leaves the mentally disabled person isolated from their loved ones unless they are lucky enough to have oversight by caring people and organizations.

Playwright Buzz McLaughlin discusses the family dynamics between a brother, Michael, (performed by John Marshall) and his schizophrenic/mentally challenged sister, Lindsey (portrayed by Gillian Todd), in his play, “Sister Calling My Name” under the direction of Peter Dobbins and featured at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, located at 18 Bleecker St in Manhattan.

The production is done in stark surroundings via a series of flashback imagery, and metaphors that reminds this writer of Tennessee Williams' play “The Glass Menagerie,” wherein the narrator in Williams' play, similarly feels strangled by his sister's disability. In some instances the audiences isn't told why Michael is so angry nor why at times he displays extreme hatred towards his mentally disabled sister whom he declares he wishes dead. Also, the viewer is left in the dark about the significance of the doll with the long brown hair which is mentioned on several occasions or why Lindsey stabbed the doll.  Is she trying to express her own inner rage? Questions unanswered. There is a scene where Michael rescues Lindsey from a fire but you have no idea whether she set the fire or the aftermath of the fire. Perhaps had the viewer known more facts they would have felt more emotionally drawn into the play. Instead the viewer is merely a spectator with no true attachment to the characters.

Having to deal with Lindsey's limited communicative skills and occasional disruptive behavior, it appears, left Michael utterly exhausted, frustrated, angry with God and desirous of keeping Lindsey out of his life. After his parents passing, Michael sees his sister as an unwanted burden. Someone who in Michael's view was hopeless and useless. Initially institutionalized and repeatedly raped while in the system, Lindsey was rescued by the Sisters of Mercy, principally by Michael's childhood sweetheart who had become a nun. Her decision to choose God over him, left Michael heartbroken and upset; especially, since his ex-girlfriend a.k.a. Sister Anne Francis (Susie Duecker), was devoted to Lindsey and discovered Lindsey's artistic talent. A talent the world was beginning to recognize. The two women established a special bond based on love and trust. Their bond drew Lindsey out, at least in her ability to express herself through painting pictures most of them devoted to the brother she never sees. Michael finds his sister's talent hard to believe and is unwilling to think of Lindsey as capable of being anything other than a burden on him and society. Tricked into visiting Lindsey for official purposes, Michael does not want to see Lindsey. He wants to sign the necessary papers and leave. But finds he still has emotions for Sister Ann Frances. Conflicted, Michael is forced to deal with his anger, feelings for his sister and for Sister Anne Frances.

Through the play, “Sister Calling My Name,” one is privy to the inside workings of the mentally challenged, the institutions that manage their care, the family dynamics and love/hate relationships felt by all involved. It is a thought provoking play! Those interested in seeing the play, be advised the show has a short run and ends at the Sheen Center on February 16th.

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