Undoubtedly there's a lesson to be learned from the life and death of Sylvia Plath, but two recent bios of the suicidal poetess have done little to shake my feeling that Plath was not so much a victim of tragic fate or spurned love as of the unavailability of Zoloft.
In the 2003 film, Sylvia, Gwyneth Paltrow made for a mournful Plath, allowing herself to get overly depressed at career lulls and spousal infidelity. That same year, Paul Alexander's monodrama, Edge , presented Plath in a more manic fashion, swinging from a garrulous ironist to an outright hysteric. Laudatory reviews greeted Angelica Torn's turn in the solo, which she's currently recreating in a limited run at off-Broadway's Arc Light Theater.
Torn tells the lifestory briskly, the words often tumbling out of her until she sounds like one of those radio commercials where all pauses for breath have been edited out. She also brings physicality to a woman we might otherwise assume to be more ethereal - i.e., the cliché of the depressed female poet wasting away. Torn conveys much by unbuttoning a button or unleashing a Cheshire-cat smile. And when she twice mimes pregnancy, we'd swear the baby bump was real.
Of course, with all that energy and intelligence, it's infuriating that a woman with so much self-knowledge would allow herself to be flushed down a vortex of hopelessness. Such, however, is the continued mystery of mental illness. Except in Edge, the villain is not Plath's brain chemistry but her hubby, Ted Hughes, who is demonized to a level that would make Satan cringe. This frustrates because we're never sure whether that point of view is Alexander's, or if he's simply letting Plath rant unfiltered during her darkest moments.
To be sure, at Edge's finale many audience members stood and applauded Torn's marathon run as the tortured author of The Bell Jar. Brava, I guess, but as the monologue drifted well past the two-hour mark, I couldn't help echoing Hughes' alleged exhortation to Sylvia: Just do it already!