Millikin’s “Medea” is Modern Take On Mental Illness

Do you ever go to a Millikin production and forget that the performers are students? Sometimes you even know them personally; they’re people that you recognize from class or someone you passed in the library. But when they’re onstage, that recognition falls away. These aren’t students; they’re professionals.

“Medea” was the perfect example of that. I recognized names in the program. But when the show began, I didn’t know anyone. Everyone was so invested in the show, so focused on telling this story in a way that was accessible and enjoyable to the audience, that they became performers first and students second. And I enjoyed every minute.

“Medea” began with offstage screaming. As it turns out, this was the perfect introduction to this disturbing, upsetting, and ultimately very moving play.

As the nurse (Elizabeth King with impressive stage makeup) peeled a potato onstage, she told us about Jason’s abandonment of his wife, Medea, and their sons following his marriage to a princess. The nurse warned us that she’s concerned about what Medea might do to herself or their children in her grief, and this not-so-subtle foreshadowing weighed heavy as the plot unfolded.

I want to commend King for taking a bite out of a raw potato for comedic effect. In fact, King proved to be a bright spot in an otherwise dark show, eliciting laughs in some of the most serious moments. She also served as a maternal figure, and her comfort of the other characters emphasized the deep sadness that underlays this story. Characters’ grief felt even sharper when she interacted with them.

Jason, played by Tanner Hake, started out as a sexist character with few redeeming qualities. But Hake’s portrayal of him transformed him into a sympathetic, multidimensional father. His talent was especially noteworthy at the end of the play, when all of Jason’s misery and fury poured out in Hake’s performance.

The indisputable star of the show was Taylor Porter, who played Medea. Porter took Medea’s pain, pulled it to the surface, and showed us how to care about her. While Medea doesn’t seem to be a sympathetic character on the surface, Porter’s portrayal made us feel for her, even root for her to get better. Porter found a way to access Medea despite the horrible things that Medea does, and Millikin’s production was better because of Porter’s hand in it.

The Tutor (Emily Brandt), Creon (Mike Sickels), Aegeus (Kevin Escobar), and the Messenger (Paul Cushman) all shone in their roles as alternately angry, frightened, and sad.

Brandt deserves a shoutout for sobbing onstage throughout the last ten minutes of the show. Sickels’s anger toward Medea was palpable, and this made his moment of sympathy toward her all the more rewarding. Escobar was funny, caring, and ultimately one of the most interesting characters in the show. Cushman’s impassioned monologue was moving, and his barely-contained anger and fear toward Medea was nuanced and deeply-felt.

I know that this play was written in 431 B.C., but if Euripides had had these actors back then, he would have given them bigger roles in the story. They rocked, and I wanted to see more of these talented performers.

Meanwhile, the Chorus deserves all the praise in the world. This ensemble was made up of eight performers who helped the audience to visualize the chaos in Medea’s mind. I could write whole dissertations about what the Chorus represents (in fact, several Greek scholars have done just that). But it seems like Millikin’s production used the Chorus as a representation of pain, trauma, and mental illness. Their graceful but disturbing movements, dancing, crying, and screaming were a strangely compelling way to convey these concepts.

And these concepts seem to be the main idea behind Millikin’s production. Director Shad Willingham writes in the program that he wanted to explore trauma and mental illness in this ancient play, even though these issues wouldn’t have been the playwright’s focus.

In his director’s note, Willingham explains, “We focused much of our energy on Medea’s psyche and though we had no interest in glamorizing her deeds, we wanted to illuminate this extreme response to betrayal and what can happen to a person’s mental state when trauma is ignored.”

As a result, Millikin’s production of “Medea” was a compelling portrayal of pain. At the beginning of the story, Medea grips her head in apparent agony. An hour later, Jason mirrors this action, and all of the pieces click into place.

In this production, Willingham asks what happens to us when we’re hurting. The answer is in Medea and Jason’s grief. This production put a modern spin on an ancient myth without changing a thing, and it’s an impressive example of what Millikin’s theatre department can do.