Arts & Culture

Theater review: ‘Asylum’ occupies wordless, dream-like world

Sloan Bradford in the Burning Coal Theatre Company production of “Asylum” by Nicki Miller and Kendall Rileigh, presented in collaboration with Only Child Aerial Theatre.
Sloan Bradford in the Burning Coal Theatre Company production of “Asylum” by Nicki Miller and Kendall Rileigh, presented in collaboration with Only Child Aerial Theatre. Right Image Photography, Inc.

What conditions did patients endure in psychiatric hospitals fifty years ago and what might their minds’ inner workings have been? “Asylum,” a co-production by Burning Coal Theatre Company and Brooklyn-based Only Child Aerial Theatre, attempts to address those questions. The extremely imaginative staging, using acrobatics, aerial choreography, original music and abstract projections, creates a wordless, dream-like world.

The stage is hung with lengths of white, sheer fabric, along with ropes and canvas straps. The walls and floor have large patches of peeling paint. There’s a nurse’s station in one corner and a rickety upright piano in the other.

Three patients huddle despondently to themselves. A kindly administrator (Mikaela Saccoccio) bids farewell as she departs her job. The patients are now in the care of the strict nurse (Nicki Miller), who puts them into their secure areas. The patients create these by crawling up into folds of hanging fabric, making cocoon-like structures cradling their bodies. A new arrival appears, roughly treated by the nurse as she forces the frightened young woman into the institutional routines.

The majority of the 70-minute one-act is then filled with patient backstories. A young man (Sloan Bradford) killed his nagging mother; another (Deon Releford-Lee) was left confused by his mother’s sudden death. A young newlywed (Kendall Rileigh) suffocated her crying newborn; the new arrival (Samantha Sterman) became incarcerated because her disruptive behavior at home caused her mother to send her away.

The stories are told in cirque-style techniques and mime. The patients express their frustration and fear through increasingly violent and scary solos and pairings in the air, spinning and plummeting without safety riggings.

Jesse Garrison’s projection designs, manipulated by the cast on an overhead projector, add further dream-like qualities by using old photographs, pieces of lace and found objects. Walken Schweigert’s music and Laura Sisskin Fernandez’s sound design provide eerie, ominous underpinnings.

The production ends with the closing (and trashing) of the hospital, leaving the patients’ fates unknown. Later, a photographer documents the dilapidated, abandoned building.

Kendall Rileigh and Nicki Miller’s original story, directed by Miller, is best when most abstract, its poetic artistry spawning striking images and evoking powerful emotions. The constant moving and setting up of the projector breaks the hypnotic atmosphere and sometimes the storytelling is hard to follow.

Nevertheless, the production is uniquely thought-provoking, in light of recent mental health cutbacks and the closing of Dorothea Dix Hospital.


What: “Asylum”

Where: Burning Coal Theatre Company, 224 Polk St., Raleigh

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16-17, 22-24 29-31; 2 p.m. Oct. 18, 25, Nov. 1

Tickets: $25 (seniors $20; Students/Military $15)

Info: 919-834-4001 or