At the start of her autobiographical solo show “Trich,” which Luna Stage in West Orange is presenting through Dec. 10, Becca Schneider lists some of her likes and dislikes.
“I adore musical theater,” she says, “and I strongly dislike solo shows.”
Rest assured, though, “Trich” is the kind of offering that even people who strongly dislike solo shows will find riveting.
And the reason why is suggested by Schneider’s love of musical theater. Yes, she has a painful (but ultimately uplifting) story to tell. But she’s a born entertainer, and adds frequent touches of humor to her monologue, as well as some dramatic tension that will keep you hanging on every word. She even sings an a cappella “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” (from “Annie Get Your Gun”) at one point, when talking about her days as a teenager who jumped at any chance she had to get on a stage and perform.
Make no mistake about it, though, this is a serious play, with an important message. The fact that it’s so entertaining, too, makes it seem like an absolute triumph.
“Trich” is short for trichotillomania, a mental disorder that causes someone to pull their hair out, compulsively. Schneider suffers from this disorder. And though she currently has it under control — she states, at the end of the play, the number of days it has been since her last incident (1,433, on the night I attended) — it wreaked havoc on her life in her high school and college years. Throughout “Trich,” she revisits those years in excruciating detail, letting us know exactly how it felt to pull out her hairs, one by one.
“I search, I find, I pull, and it’s like an electric current, especially from the ones with good roots,” she says, adding that each pulled strand momentarily stops her anxiety. (She somewhat jokingly adds, though, that people shouldn’t try this at home.)
Crucially, she is honest about how difficult it is to be publicly talking about all this — which helps ground her story, and generate sympathy. You’re not just watching her talk about her life, you’re rooting for her. And the direction, by Jenn Haltman and Casey Pfeifer, and even the lighting design, by Ian Lloyd Sanchez, show great sensitivity, and underscore the idea that this is a not just a random collection of thoughts on a topic, but a dramatic tale that flows, with purpose, from one part to the next.
Some of “Trich” is delivered like an informative lecture, though it’s never dry or scientific for long. And it becomes downright harrowing as Schneider describes the disorder spiraling out of control, leading her to make more and more desperate attempts to cover up her bald patches with bandanas and makeup. Even though the one thing she feared most was people noticing that something was going on, it became harder and harder to hide what she was doing. And even though she knew that she would only get a moment of satisfaction from pulling a hair — and that each of those missing hairs would add to her agony — she couldn’t make herself stop.
“It’s like the bag of potato chips in your kitchen … it’s the box of Oreos, the case of beer, the pack of cigarettes burning a hole in my pocket,” she says. “If I could pull one hair every day for the rest of my life and be satisfied, I would take that deal in a second. But it’s never just one.”
An ongoing theme is how alone and confused she felt during her worst years of trichotillomania. As she reminds us, she started suffering from it in the pre-Internet era, so you couldn’t just look for information about compulsive hair-pulling via Google. Relatives, teachers and even most of her therapists were usually at a loss as to how to help her. But telling people about it did help, she found.
She admits that there were times when she hesitated to write this play because it felt too self-indulgent to her, among other reasons. But each time this happened, she said, “I would think to myself, ‘What if I had seen this when I was 15?’ So if any of you are feeling suffocated in your life … that feeling is not permanent. … There is a way out.”
I have a confession of my own to make: I still feel like a lost 15-year-old at times. And I imagine that many of us do.
Trichotillomania may be a rare thing: Only about 1 in 50 people experience it at some point in their lives, Schneider tells us, and I assume that many of those have less severe symptoms than she did. But anyone with any kind of bad habit should find her story relatable, and inspirational.
Luna Stage in West Orange will present “Trich” through Dec. 10. Visit lunastage.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.