By Cynthia Darling
From the moment Susan Ward appears onstage in “Wasbian,” it’s impossible not to dive right in to her colorful writing and bold acting. Her presence is, quite simply, beguiling, as she spins rich and shimmering tales told with an edgy comic delivery.
Ms. Ward frames her show with the Peter Pan story. Her first love was Peter Pan, whom she first saw portrayed in a show at a girls’ school in her hometown of Miami. She ogled this Peter, and expressed her love for him. It turned out he was a she, as the role was played by a girl. She was still smitten, proclaiming that she’d love to be this girl’s boyfriend.
From there, the show takes off at high speed, packing in a dense litany of events as Ms. Ward comes to know herself and understand her sexual orientation. There are girls and boys in Ms. Ward’s young dating life. Characters abound. Her best friend Mary Agnes, whose cockney accent Ms. Ward perfects, is a comical reprieve. Ms. Ward’s “grand mommy”‑her Lebanese‑Alabaman grandmother‑makes an appearance, woefully out of touch. Eric, the foreman of the kiddie rides at the amusement park, makes out with her and then promptly crushes and shoots up the Dexedrine pills that Ms. Ward had brought. Ms. Ward depicts each girlfriend and boyfriend with just the right personal detail to define them memorably.
Ms. Ward’s narrative verges into the playfully raunchy. She talks about her obsession with breasts and describes her delight upon realizing she had great ones. In discussing her more serious diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder as a teenager, she describes the “hole” she wanted her “Peter Pan to fill up.” The audience laughed. “Not that kind of hole,” she smiled. A much larger hole, she goes on to say, that she tried to numb with alcohol and drugs. Never to settle on darkness for too long, Ms. Ward notes that her own nurse, Wendy, said that “I’m her favorite kind of mentally ill person. We’re the fun ones.”
Backdrop photos and visuals from Ms. Ward’s life, as well as a dancing green neon light of Tinker Bell, inject a certain magic. Even though the only scenery is a stool upon which Ms. Ward sits, the stage never feels empty, rife, as it is, with highly original scenes.
Great comedic moments abound when excellent writing coincides with humorous visuals. For example, Ms. Ward illustrates how she played as a young girl: “Barbie. That was a garden of delights. Free love was alive in Barbie’s Sleep ‘n’ Keep Fold‑Out Playhouse.” Projected behind her are photos of her Barbie playhouse, full of Barbies in a range of frolicking adult positions. She fantasized about being inside the bottle from “I Dream of Jeannie” with Barbara Eden.
Her portrayal of Miami in the 80s is fascinating. It was, as she says, “Scarface Playland,” and she made money “cleaning houses for cocaine cowboys.” She also dated some.
As if Ms. Ward’s comedic timing and dense colorful writing weren’t enough, she also sings. From full‑out musical tunes, to fragments of songs used as transitions or to emphasize a point, Ms. Ward’s musical talent is evident. The musical numbers lighten the mood and remind us that we are in a world in which magic can happen.
Haunting family stories weave throughout the show, as she describes her father, who was abandoned first as a five‑year‑old, and then multiple times after that, until, as she states, “he learned to survive by being the one who left.” Personal family stories about her brother and mother are a central part of the narrative, rooting the show in an honest tenderness.
The show did sometimes run into trouble as I struggled to follow its arc. Is this a tale about sexual orientation? About mental illness? Certainly, a story can have multiple themes, but subjects occasionally arose seemingly out of nowhere. Many topics compete, threatening to crowd the narrative with too many threads that don’t always have enough setup.
For example, about halfway into the show, Ms. Ward describes living with her brother in college, while attending FSU. She says she was always hungry because she was a dancer and had to keep her weight down. This was the first time we heard of this particular hunger issue‑or of her being a dancer. It was confusing to hear her reminisce about spreading a tub of margarine onto notebook paper and eating the paper. Was this a symptom of an eating disorder, drug abuse, or a different form of mental illness? The incident prompted Ms. Ward to call university psych services, and go into rehab.
As Ms. Ward embraces her sexual orientation as a lesbian, she beautifully articulates her new experiences of sex and love. Her first real girlfriend was, fittingly, Wendy, whom she describes as ripping back the callus around her small heart. Later, she marries Marianne, whom she met in AA. When that relationship‑her longest‑breaks up, she dates men for a bit. Time passes. Falling in love with Beth, “the one,” she leaves her rent‑stabilized West Village apartment to decamp to suburbs north of the city, a move that drew audible groans from the audience. As Ms. Ward notes, she had forgotten the rule of NYC: real estate over relationships.
The term “wasbian” is finally defined. After Ms. Ward makes her life in the suburbs, her relationship with Beth ends. No longer in a lesbian relationship, she dates men. She is currently with a man who, she poignantly describes, holds her heart gently in his hand. Toward the end, Ms. Ward does offer a trail through her life, musing that she may not be either gay or straight, but merely monogamous with the person she’s with. Having followed her this far, we know that whatever the future holds, she will make her way like the Tinker Bell light that has been buzzing by her side throughout the show: with boldness and an endearing authenticity that keeps her true to herself.
In short‑there is no shortage of interest in this show. I found myself leaning forward to await Ms. Ward’s punch lines, laughing aloud, not wanting to miss a beat of the variegated stories of her full life.
Written and Performed by Susan Ward
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Production Design by Duane Rutter
October 20 at 2 PM, and October 26 at 7 PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.