Chicago, 1998. Harrison and Katherine are both struggling. Harrison’s wife recently left him and he gave up a challenging career choice for a safer one as a Math teacher. Fourteen-year-old Katherine’s school cannot see past her cerebral palsy, so she’s not allowed to take “normal” classes. Schism begins when both characters reach breaking point: Harrison is mid-suicide attempt when Katherine breaks into his home to appeal for his help to move into his Math class. This initial meeting spawns a twenty-year long relationship between the two, but not a healthy one. Harrison constantly tries to manipulate and control Katherine, who fights for her independence with progressively underhanded methods. Athena Stevens’ script choppily covers the huge time period in sections, addressing several important issues: autonomy within relationships, abuse, life/work balance, failure and aspiration. A play featuring disability that pushes other topics to the forefront, Schism needs more fleshing out but its messages are loud and clear.
Twenty years is a lot of material to fit into a play and at just over an hour, a lot of the plot is left out. There are about four years between each scene, nicely signposted by a current affairs talk radio show, but pivotal transitions are missing. How does their romantic relationship eventually come about? What are the immediate consequences of his awful behaviour? How does her career develop? How did he manage to keep his job after Katherine, in her final year of high school, hang out at his home regularly? These are unanswered, but easily could be by the addition of more scenes. This wouldn’t effect the episodic nature of the script, but would make the story more satisfying. Despite the clunky narrative arc, Stevens’ dialogue still manages to crackle and easily creates tension. There are some great one-liners that spark belly laughs, and moments that are equally horrifying. As set pieces, the scenes are excellent pieces of writing.
Stevens also plays Katherine and displays a clear sense of ownership over the role. Whether or not there are elements of Katherine in her own life, Stevens performance is emotionally genuine and wholly committed. Tim Beckmann gives a nuanced Harrison who transitions from teacher to lover easily, and maintains an undercurrent of desperation. Alex Marker’s domestic design with the ever-present huge, architectural drawings peeking through the windows is a good reflection of the passion that drives both characters, and director Alex Sims displays a good instinct for portraying the journey of a relationship.
Disability issues are ever present and dictate many of Katherine’s choices, but Schism isn’t about her overcoming adversity. It’s part of who she is, but she has other, more pressing problems – university admissions, bidding for work, whether or not to start a family, and civilian objection to her building projects. Harrison does as well, but they are more psychological and harder to resolve. His inability to cope with Katherine’s success in the field where he failed, his inability to have children with his ex-wife and his inability to let Katherine be an independent woman slowly devour him. It’s compelling to witness. In fact, Schism makes more of a statement about feminism within heterosexual relationships than it does about disability awareness, which is hugely refreshing and shows great progress in theatre equality – Katherine’s disability is a part of her, but only a small one compared to her aspirations.
Schism is a provocative relationship drama that certainly resonates despite the holes in the story. This dysfunctional couple can be both delightful and painful to watch, much like anyone in a modern relationship dealing with the other’s baggage. With some further development, Stevens’ play could pack an even heavier punch.
Schism ran through 14 May.
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