The journey toward healing from trauma is arduous, and the world (of at least one person) hangs in the balance. The further journey,
all the way to becoming a healer, is harder — but our shared world desperately needs people to dare it.
Nicki Joy Monti has made that further journey, and among its fruits is Becoming Human, now onstage at McCadden Place. Monti’s tale is an autobiography, shrunk (for theatre) to a memoir, simultaneously recounted to a therapist and enacted in flashbacks.
We follow her story — and her reflections on it — from her birth to the threshold of her healing career. We witness her chaotic, harsh childhood, and her dogged attempt to wrest scraps of love and some kind of normal life from her abusive, alcoholic mother (and Mama’s poor partner choices).
We also witness — and this is perhaps the play’s greatest strength — the gradual transformation of Nicki into Nicki Joy. The woman we meet in the therapist’s office is brash, always joking, talking about feelings instead of experiencing them. By the time she has relived her life, and (concurrently with her therapy) taken on caring for her mother’s advancing dementia, she has been shattered and softened. And may be ready to become a therapist.
Becoming Human is competently staged and acted, under Diana Wyenn’s strong eye and hand. As Mother, Lauren Campedelli creates not a demon but a blithe narcissist to whom doubt is a stranger; though her mind fails, her aggressive defenses never do. Kat Rodriguez’s portrayal of Nicky, at every age from childhood to about 30, is clear and affecting, even when she is not speaking. Michael Matthys separates his several roles with precision, and A. Russell Andrews’ therapist is the perceptive, caring calm in the eye of the storm.
Monti plays herself in the therapy scenes. She has an engaging presence; but I find that while we as actors can be ourselves effectively, e.g. in a one-person show, we can’t play ourselves. It’s the one character we lack the distance to embody with an artist’s
selectivity. We become diffuse, relaxed. It’s too easy (and, like a plush couch, too hard to get out of). Despite Monti’s energy and range, I suspect another actor could serve the story better.
Becoming Human would also be well-served by continuing the editing and shaping that has brought it thus far. Its 90 minutes is the outer limit of what audiences can sustain, and there are scenes (e.g., 8-year-old Nicki begging Mama not to go out on a date) that will gain power as they shed repetition. The prose also still has a few small purple patches, which cause the momentum to stumble.
Becoming Human is an important tale, often movingly told, and well on its way to being a powerful play. Many people have gone public with their struggles to recover from childhood abuse and the hells it leads them through in adulthood. Many more will do so. We need these stories: Each one speaks for a thousand.
Becoming Human, by Nicki Joy Monti, directed by Diana Wyenn.
At McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood 90038.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00,
through August 6.