'Third Tree on the Left' Breaks Through the Stigma of Mental Illness

Not a pity party

Branching Out
A powerful collaboration between theater professionals and people living with mental illness breaks through barriers of shame and stigma

Third Tree on the Left is not the most eloquently written, masterfully performed or glamorously staged local show this year. But it is, unquestionably, the bravest, most inspirational and most powerful.

The hourlong piece is a series of monologues, poems and songs, all of which deal in some fashion with the stigma of mental illness. That’s intriguing in its own right, but when you consider that six of its eight writers and performers live daily with severe mental illnesses ranging from clinical depression to schizophrenia, the piece becomes even more keenly honest and immediate.

But this isn’t a pity party, or some well-meaning but ultimately slight exercise in theater-as-therapy. It’s an affecting, poignant, frequently hilarious piece of theater that succeeds admirably in its primary thrust: to show not only that the mentally ill shouldn’t be scorned, feared or pitied, but also that many actually find strength and power in their conditions.

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Organized by Don Lafoon, whose STOP GAP theater company has conducted yeoman work in the county for years by bringing its interactive, therapeutic-oriented theater to battered-women’s shelters, teen homes, children’s hospitals and the like, the piece is a collaboration among him, two of his professional actors (Danny Overbeck and Nancy Petersen) and six of the 17 mentally ill auditioneers who responded to an open call through the Orange County Mental Health Service (the play is part of the division’s Erase the Stigma, a summer-long festival celebrating mental-health awareness).

Lafoon, who had never ventured into a theatrical piece tackling such an issue before, knew he wanted an ensemble piece that was wholly collaborative. What he didn’t anticipate was how interesting it would be working with actors saddled with the kind of personal baggage your typical high-strung drama-queen thespians should count themselves quite fortunate to lack.

“To be honest, it was rocky,” says Lafoon, who won the OC Weekly Theater Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006. “Sometimes actors wouldn’t show up, or had a crisis of sorts, and there was also exhaustion, depending on the medications they were using and when they had to use them. So it was a very real experience. But as we got to know one another and shared our stories and began working together, I was amazed at their courage.

“I’ve always thought that living with secrets and shame is like living in darkness,” he adds, “and the theater can provide a spotlight on issues like these and bring them out of the darkness.”

Some of those stories are harrowing, indeed. One woman eerily describes the nuts and bolts of getting her brain fried via electroshock therapy. Another speaks hauntingly of the storm that engulfs her brain at times, a storm she’s unable to anticipate or break through. Others speak of suicide attempts; visits to psych wards; medications that don’t work or even exacerbate their conditions; and doctors who tell them they’ll never be able to hold down a job, have a family or maintain a relationship.

But there are also clarion moments of hope and even rebirth. Each actor at some point describes how his or her personal ordeals, while debilitating at times, have provided them a seed of redemption: learning how strong, resilient, resourceful or patient they are.

It’s a beautiful hour of theater; I hope the rest of the performances aren’t limited solely to audiences of those suffering from their own diseases, or people from the mental-health field, which seemed to be the majority at the opening-afternoon show.

As Lafoon said before the show, what he most wants audiences to take from this piece is “to open themselves up to more understanding of people with mental illness, to walk an hour in their shoes. I’d like them to realize that mental illness is a disease just like cancer or heart disease. There is no shame in it.”

The show begins with each of the actors recounting the day they were diagnosed with their respective illness. It ends with them announcing the current date, signifying a rebirth of sorts, and then venturing into the audience to shake audience members’ hands.

In any other context, that might come off as awkward or hokey. Here, it makes perfect sense. The overriding sense from Third Tree on the Left is that the mentally ill, at least the performers in this show—Judy Adams, Paul Abram, Danny Gibbs, David Lonky, Kymberli Kercher Smith and Laurynne Wilkerson—don’t want sympathy, but rather understanding; seek community rather than isolation; and are looking not for a handout, but for a handshake.

Third Tree on the Left at Grand Central Art Center Theater, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Sat., 2 & 5 p.m.; Tues., 1 p.m.; Aug. 1, 5 & 7:30 p.m. Free.

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