It’s not possible to ignore the disability politics lurking behind every word of Athena Stevens’ Schism. Not only is the play, taking us from Chicago in the 1990s right up to 2018, a disarming piece of rhetoric critically examining society as disabling the impaired, it’s also an engaging essay on the challenges of valuing disability and at the same time, mourning the loss of ability. By the play’s end, it’s also clear that attitudes and narratives are changing.
Playwright Athena Stevens, who herself lives with athetoid cerebral palsy, has a hard task navigating society’s dinosaur attitudes to disability. Katherine (Athena Stevens), in a wheel chair and living with Stevens’ condition, becomes so frustrated at her basic education that she breaks, demon-like, into the house of Harrison (Tim Beckmann) a maths teacher who once showed her some kindness, to ask for help. Harrison, washed-up and drowning in his own quagmire of self-defeatism, is about to commit suicide. Eventually, as Harrison comes to accept Katherine in his life, the two begin a relationship and Harrison encourages her in her attempts to go to university and become an architect. This, however, is where Harrison unravels, as his desire to be dutiful and protect Katherine merges with his unconscious absorption of society’s disabling attitudes and his own haunted failures to become an architect himself.
Whilst Harrison speaks disappointingly little and Katherine hogs the stage with outbursts of justified anger at a world which is determined not to adapt to her, the play succeeds at recognising the complex situations that can arise between partners where one person is the more able bodied. Harrison is drawn to Katherine because he wants to help. It means the relationship is built on Katherine maintaining a position of dependency. This highlights the complicated notion that an individual is to be valued as distinct from their disability, when that same disability is also something that others or even the individual, uses to define themselves.
Neither character is that likeable. It’s not a problem when one realises that, for Katherine at least, this prevents a glorification of disability and the creation of circumstances where those with disabilities cannot be criticised. The writing is a little one-sided, but it succeeds because Stevens’ portrayal of Katherine verges on the anti-heroic, especially when she coerces Harrison into a relationship almost against his will. I wrote in my notes that “The ability (of Katherine) not to follow the usual modern dating rules means a disregard for the normal mating rituals.” Her forcing herself on him sexually recharges them both. But whilst Katherine is ruthless in her ambition, she seems incapable of showing any compassion for, or understanding of, Harrison, especially at the play’s end. She gets career success but at a cost.
Neither is the pain of living with a disability untouched either. There is a painful scene where we see impairment as a real handicap, and where we realise that Katherine not only has to deal with the prejudice that comes with disablism but also the debilitating effects of the disability on herself, separate from society’s attitudes. Katherine’s fractious and divisive inner and outer lives are brilliant evoked by Alex Marker’s set.
Harrison grows increasingly warped and backwards as Katherine moves forward. Katherine has the bigger journey to make, although our sympathies for her might recede at the same rate her successes multiply. There’s a connection here with Harrison’s Hitmitsu box that Katherine so desperately tries to open, thinking there is a code she needs to crack. But then when she does, the awful illusion is revealed. The awful illusion is similarly revealed when she becomes successful too and you come away thinking it’s not just that she can only be seen and allowed into society once she conquers it, but that it is all a myth anyway. She gets the promised kingdom in this inverted retelling of Ibsen’s Master Builder, which I am sure is a reference, but is it worth the price in the end? Is the playwright also mocking herself? Schism is inspired by the social mobility difficulties faced by those who are impaired, but it also deals with the compelling, universal and cosmic themes of success and failure, love and duty, vision and its oppression.
Schism is on until 14th May 2016. Click here for tickets.