The Yellow Wallpaper

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 19, 2016

The Yellow Wallpaper

For any woman who has been put in her "place," told to be quiet, told to stop being emotional, CoHo Theatre's production of "The Yellow Wallpaper" should carry a trigger warning. The story of an intelligent, independent woman whose shining intensity is subsumed into a proscribed, limiting role, complete with confining behavioral expectations, is painfully familiar.

Originally a short story by the great feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman (who also wrote the novel "Herland"), "The Yellow Wallpaper" has been adapted for the stage by Sue Mach. Set before the turn of the last century, the story probes the ultimate result of cutting a woman off from intellectual and spiritual fulfillment.

This is the world premiere of this play, which was brought to life by Portlanders Mach and Grace Carter, whose vision is responsible for the adaptation of the story. It is a tale that resonates today, when women continue to fight for the right to thrive on their own terms, and to separate themselves from the limitations imposed by traditional gender roles.

Carter also plays Charlotte, a woman whose forthright intellect and curiosity snares the interest of John, a physician who is delivering a lecture on the psyche. John is intrigued by Charlotte's passionate pursuit of knowledge, her quicksilver wit, and her determined independence, and her need to understand her world through her writing. He falls madly in love with her, proposes marriage, and she agrees, in spite of her misgivings about what she will give up when she becomes a wife.

The pair appears next in a house they've taken for the summer, a place for Charlotte to rest after a recent strain. John's sister Jenny has accompanied them, acting as nurse for Charlotte's recovery. The story unfolds at this summer house, in the attic room in which Charlotte is supposed to recuperate, the room she immediately dislikes; the room decorated with horrible yellow wallpaper.

In this lean production, whose stage holds merely a bed and a door, each tiny detail holds meaning. The costumes are particularly expressive: John wears a morning suit, with its cutaway coat and high collar showing fitting formality for a physician. Charlotte, in stark contrast, wears light, unstructured linen, still appropriately modest for the age, but prioritizing comfort and ease of movement over appearance. The hem of her blue skirt is unfinished, raw, but linen looks good in its natural state, unfussy. It's perfect for Charlotte's personality.

John's sister wears a high ruffled-collar satin shirt over a heavy plum taffeta skirt, even though it's summer. While she and Charlotte are friends, they are very different. Her clothes reflect the fact that Jenny embraces the traditional female role; archetypically feminine, restrictive, conforming not to the environment but to societal expectations for a woman of her station.

Carter's portrayal of Charlotte is convincing from end to end, a woman of great mental abilities and creative purpose driven to sorrow and eventually broken. Chris Harder as John is a brusque, loving, well-intentioned doctor who really only wants to take care of his wife.

The reason for Charlotte's seclusion isn't clear, either in the story or the play: she's apparently given birth to a son, Thomas, and there has been some intervening event that set off alarm bells for her family. She's described as having a "nervous condition," and her only task is to rest and stay away from stimulus.

But vibrant Charlotte begins to lose her stability in the hours of silence, and her system goes into withdrawal. Without anything to read, or anyone to talk to, or anything of substance to do, her mind drifts farther and farther from herself. She is forbidden from writing, although she sneaks a notebook and writing utensil out of her pocket the moment she's alone.

It is not long before Charlotte's mental stability crumbles. The unspecified event has clearly given her an emotional load to carry, and her imprisonment has removed all of her tools for dealing with that load. Her system starts to break down, and soon she is seeing figures in the awful wallpaper and becomes convinced there is someone nearby, just out of her field of vision.

The staging of her devolution into instability is haunting, putting the audience into the center of the mental assault. From just offstage, we hear knocking and out-of-tune humming. As she rockets into the depths, the humming and knocking become invasive, like the soundtrack to a horror movie.

Interspersed with interruptions from John and Jenny, which are silent and calm but tense, like the air before a storm, the scenes of Charlotte's spiraling are gripping and frightening. An actual figure appears behind the wall, entering reality and space, and the approach of the figure becomes more obvious as Charlotte goes farther into her illness. Dread precedes the figure, like an odor or a dim light.

Peak silent misery is reached when Jenny comes to wash Charlotte's hair, which has gone from informal to chaotic. Without a word, Jenny draws Charlotte to the bowl, and the women kneel together as Jenny gently washes her friend. Charlotte responds with anguished tears, touch and tenderness acting as a release valve for her terror and pain. This lasts only a few minutes, and Jenny tenderly holds Charlotte for a moment after the hair is finished, and then she leaves her to her madness.

If there is a complaint about this play, it is that the time spent on the descent into madness is so overwhelming, so much more involved than the time spent getting to know Charlotte and love her for who she is. It is assumed, after our brief introduction, that Charlotte is an amazing person, but we aren't given a chance to invest in her.

While this is a dramatization of a short story, the playwright has already taken some liberties with the story in giving us the background information of how Charlotte and John met, which is not part of the original. The process of going mad is saturating and thorough in its detail, but we are severed from the effect on this person because we never really knew her.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" is a compelling, sometimes disturbing look at what happens when our true selves are denied. Let this stand as your warning: the tragedy of this story will remind you of the times you were forced into a box for someone else's comfort. While mental health can't be guaranteed by access to a library and a notebook and pen, "The Yellow Wallpaper" guides you to the terrifying result for one artistic mind starved of its necessary nourishment. Be prepared.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" runs through Feb. 6 at CoHo Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh St., Portland, OR, 97210. For tickets and information, call 503-220-2646 or visit for tickets.

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.