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Drama therapy consultant offers 'Lost in Yonkers' cast unique perspective

Marsha mason.jpg
T Charles Erickson
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Hartford Stage
Hartford Stage's production of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers."

Much like music therapy and art therapy, drama therapy uses elements of drama and theater to help people with mental health issues like trauma and addiction. It’s been in practice since the 1960s, and now it’s being used to help actors better understand the mental health of their characters.

Hartford Stage took the unusual step of bringing in a drama therapy consultant for its new production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers.”

The play takes place in 1942 and explores the dynamics of the Kurnitz family. After the death of their mother, teenage brothers Arty and Jay are sent to live with their paternal grandmother in Yonkers so that their father can go on the road as a traveling salesman. Grandma Kurnitz is a Jewish refugee from pre-World War I Germany with a traumatic past. The years have turned her into a stern, bitter, even harsh matriarch.

“What you have in this play is an intergenerational love story about this family that is dealing with lots of inherited trauma that is passed down generation to generation,” said Rachel Alderman, co-director of “Lost in Yonkers.” “So, it was something that we wanted to really explore, and find a common vocabulary around so that we could be really honest about the nature of the mental health of the characters in the play.”

Lost in Yonkers Uncle Louie
T Charles Erickson
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Arty and Jay's life in Yonkers gets a little more interesting when Uncle Louie comes for a visit.

Alderman thought a drama therapist might do the trick — someone with a foot in theater and psychotherapy who could help the cast make sense of this complicated matriarch. So drama therapist Britton Williams was brought in as a consultant to help the cast find that common vocabulary.

Williams said that when she read the script, she recognized that trauma was at play with the entire Kurnitz family.

“Every single character is extraordinarily weighted by their own experience of trauma,” said Williams. “And then when trauma comes into the room and meets trauma, what we often see are these enactments: ‘I get triggered by something you say, you get triggered by something I say. I’m thinking you are mean, you’re thinking I’m aloof and not listening.’ What we will see if we are just on the outside looking in is ‘Whoa, what’s going on with this family?’”

Marsha Mason, co-director of “Lost in Yonkers,” also stars as Grandma Kurnitz. She said Williams’ input not only helped her bring a new dimension to the Grandma Kurnitz role, but it also helped her deal with the emotions that go with playing such a difficult character.

Marsha Mason close.jpg
T Charles Erickson
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Actress Marsha Mason portrays the cantankerous Grandma Kurnitz in Hartford Stage's production of "Lost in Yonkers."

“The grandmother is shut down emotionally,” said Mason. That’s really an interesting challenge for an actor. I’m naturally an empathetic person. To play someone who has cut all of that off due to the pain of the loss - the loss of her homeland, the loss of her husband, the loss of two of her children - those are really deep feelings. So everything that Britton has given me, I’ve used to try and get to that place.”

Despite her mean exterior, Grandma Kurnitz is someone who loves her family, just in her own way, based on her own experiences, said Williams.

“It’s an act of love through the experience. All of those times of sternness, of strictness and harshness, in Grandma’s context it’s like “I am preparing you. I’m preparing you for a life I know is cruel.

Alderman says this is her first experience working with a drama therapist on a production. She says that what Williams gave the cast was a unique glimpse into their characters.

“Actors come with all of their lived experience, and Britton comes with her wealth of experience,” said Alderman. “And when you put those things together, you have even more richness. And then we can take all of that information and we can move forward to make the show what we hoped it would be, giving these characters all the dignity and wholeness that they deserve.”

“Lost in Yonkers” runs through May 1 at Hartford Stage.

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