A woman dying of cancer tries to explain a phenomenon to her doctor—that when she’s with certain people, her pain dissipates. More, she says, than with her medicines. She calls this phenomenon “withing.” This concept was the subject of The Withing Project, which played at the Jones Playhouse November 19-22. Produced, written, and composed by musician/physician Hope Wechkin, it was truly a cross-genre performance, involving theatre, music, dance, and science. The storyline followed a dying patient, her doctor, and a scientist, and served to showcase a set of data that correlates brain patterns of physically isolated individuals. The gist of the research is this: two people are given time to “connect with one another” before one is given visual stimulation and the other receives an MRI scan in another room. The scan reveals blood flow changes to the brain correlating with the visual stimulus of the partner.
Each scene unfolds with actors, and then the same scene takes place with dancers and musicians. Beth Graczyk (also the choreographer) plays the role of physician. Swirling, busy, thoughtful, and curious in her movement, she perfectly encapsulates the character of the doctor. Corrie Befort plays the patient with equal aplomb, delicately balancing her fine-tuned physical skill with the fact that she is playing a person on the brink of death. She performs a subtle exhaustion, as if each pose took great concentration and effort. Her arms repeatedly reach out to something just beyond her grasp. Coleman Pester dances the scientist role, and his performance is the most dynamic: slicing through space, falling and redirecting momentum, his limbs also seeming to reach for answers.
While each of these dancers did fine work accomplishing the task at hand, there was something unsatisfying about the piece overall. With the theater component defining each scene, the dance and music felt merely illustrative, as though they are not trusted mediums for advancing the plot. The chorus sang a paraphrase of each theater scene directly after it happened, which quickly became repetitive and heavy handed. Even the script itself felt tedious and without intrinsic value, as it clearly served as exposition for the scientific research. Actor Sunam Ellis’ performance was notable in that her great skill managed to make the script come to life, but it is an uphill battle. The desire for the audience to believe is palpable throughout the writing, which makes for an uncomfortable performance.
The Withing Project also reveals a certain naiveté regarding art and narrative. The truth of art does not lie in evidence, and the purpose of art is not to explain things. In a work where “what if?” was sung over and over, the artistic elements are so literal that there is little room for wonder. The plot of the work was about the potential for human connection, but the crafting ignored art’s capacity to create human connection on its own terms—a phenomenon we know to happen all the time without the authority of science. If the concept of “withing” does indeed exist, using art to produce a tangible feeling of connection would be far more compelling evidence than using art as an entertaining and surface-level explanation of scientific concepts.
Undoubtedly, many people enjoyed this performance for its beautiful music and dance. The 20-plus performers were all very skilled and polished. The format of the show may have even offered an easy entry into dance for audiences who are challenged by its abstract nature, with context for each dance section neatly provided. But the show seemed to only dabble superficially in each of the genres it featured. The science component even felt like a mixed message. Great leaps were made between correlated data, potential causes, and anecdotal evidence. While this was acknowledged in the script, the final message seemed to be that optimism and hope should triumph over critical thought, a premise that would undoubtedly be rejected by the scientific community. Science and art are similar in that both require great creativity and great leaps into the unknown. And most of the time, no matter how skilled, you don’t get the desired results. The ambition of The Withing Project is not without merit. It was inspiring to see dancers, musicians, actors, and science on stage together—these fields certainly have a lot to gain by collaborating, however, in this case, more development is required to utilize the connection points between art and science. Each genre is capable of contributing its own kind of truth in the exploration of these concepts, but more research is needed. Back to the lab, the notebook, the piano bench, the studio…