The Willard Suitcases: Memorable madness fully committed at Blackfriars Playhouse

John Harrell and Sylvie Davidson in The Willard Suitcases by Julianne Wick Davis. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

In 1995, a handful of forgotten suitcases were discovered in upstate New York, at the then-recently closed Willard Psychiatric Center. The luggage had remained untouched since their owners checked in many years before.

What would you say if someone pitched the idea of producing an original musical centered around abandoned suitcases found in the attic of a long-shuttered insane asylum? If you’re like this reporter, your reaction might be to wonder if they are crazy. Yet, as preposterous as the proposal might sound, such an idea has come to fruition in The Willard Suitcases – a brand new musical at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse.

Written and composed by multi-award-winning lyricist/composer Julianne Wick Davis, The Willard Suitcases moves purposefully through twenty stories-in-song, as it tackles the vexing question of mental health care from the viewpoint of institutionalized patients.

The cast of The Willard Suitcases by Julianne Wick Davis. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Lindsey Walters.
The cast of The Willard Suitcases embarks for their final destination. (Photo by Lindsey Walters.)

The suitcase aspect provides continuity for the show and disturbingly asks, “What would you pack?”

It is a premise placed in an historical setting.

Davis got the idea for the play after seeing some of the suitcases on display, and subsequently meeting Jon Crispin – a photographer who had gained permission to photograph the found luggage. Inspired by her encounters, Davis began to pen a song cycle based on Crispin’s photographs.

According to Blackfriar’s Artistic Director Ethan McSweeny – who skillfully directs The Willard Suitcases – as the show coalesced, there was talk of staging it as an immersive production at the defunct Western State Hospital in Staunton, VA.

For a number of reasons, that idea was ultimately nixed – hence, the decision to debut the show at the Blackfriars Playhouse.

What separates The Willard Suitcases from most of today’s auto-tuned tripe is truly compelling content performed proficiently by an able and enjoyable cast. Add to that the decision to do the show Blackfriars style (acoustic, live and without resorting to elaborate lighting, sound or scenery), and you have a very intimate and moving show.

You also have a show with zest, which may come as a pleasant surprise, considering the weighty content. What better way to describe an ever-evolving stage, first filled with suitcases, then neatly unpacked to reveal both contents and the thoughts of the committed? Or a cast which moves seamlessly between numbers – laying their luggage aside to back fellow cast members in song, and on an assortment of musical instruments?

David Anthony Lewis, Brandon Carter, and Chris Johnston in The Willard Suitcases by Julianne Wick Davis. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Lindsey Walters.
David Anthony Lewis, Brandon Carter, and Chris Johnston in The Willard Suitcases. (Photo by Lindsey Walters.)

Zoe Speas goes from frustrated piano teacher (“Art of Practice”) to exuberant teen (“Liverpool Lads”) without missing a Mersey beat. John Harrell is decidedly devilish (with box camera-in-hand) in “Say Cheese” as he tries to seduce a fellow patient (Sylvie Davidson.) Annabelle Rollison is a real shot in the arm in “All In a Day’s Work”. And the trio of David Anthony Lewis, Brandon Carter, and Chris Johnson imaginatively ride the plains of hilarity in “You’re Not The Lone Ranger.”

If I get a vote for the best number in the show (and I do), I’d cast my ballot for “Dear President Mr. Herbert Hoover” (delivered with crowd-pleasing gusto by Helen Hayes award-nominated actress Nancy Anderson.) Anderson is an absolute joy to watch, as she filibusters for her immediate release. And her rousing cry for help is certainly worth more than a presidential tweet.

On more somber notes, we encounter spousal abuse (Constance Swain telling the tale of “The Silver”), loneliness (Anderson “Look in My Window”), abandonment (“Dear Sister”), the loss of a child (Leighton Brown “Little Sailor Suit”), and death.

Sitting glued, as we were – watching the action unfold – the effect was truly cumulative. At various points, we found ourselves wondering just how much of what was being presented was what really happened to the character versus what the person/character singing thought had happened.

What Davis has done here is pretty amazing. She’s taken us on an emotional roller-coaster ride with nary a bump in the tracks — taking sharp turns on the rails while simultaneously making us think. She has brought us into the lives of these hapless inmates, while also turning the audience inward to ask some serious questions:

“What if that were me? How would I feel?”

“What would I pack for my final destination?”

“What separates the sane from the insane, and ultimately, who is the final judge?”

Admittedly, these are gloomy questions, and The Willard Suitcases is not an “Up” show. But it’s a show this reporter has been thinking about a lot.

It may be the most memorable musical I’ve seen in years.

Nancy Anderson and the cast of The Willard Suitcases by Julianne Wick Davis. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. (Photo by Lindsey Walters.)

Yes, there are a few minor first-run problems, such as the placement of a picture board that couldn’t be seen by part of the audience. And I think it’s fair to say that no one left the theatre humming any of Davis’ tunes. But I was tempted – very tempted – to stop at the box office on my way out and purchase tickets for a future performance.

Don’t be surprised if The Willard Suitcases eventually takes Broadway by storm.

Highly recommended.

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The American Shakespeare Center’s production of The Willard Suitcases is running in rep with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; Antony and Cleopatra; and George Barnard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. The fall line-up is running now – Dec 1 at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA. Running time for The Willard Suitcases is about 1 hour and 45 minutes with one ten-minute intermission. For tickets and other information, including ways to plan your visit, please bookmark the American Shakespeare Center. Or call the Box Office at 1.877.MUCH.ADO. There are very helpful people who should be able to assist in answering any additional questions.