Kate Hendrickson directs the Chicago premiere of Krista Knight’s Lipstick Lobotomy, an arch but moving 2019 play about mental illness, conformity, and the search for understanding in World War ll-era America. When Ginny (Ann Sonneville) checks into an upper-crust sanitarium hoping to be cured of obsessive thinking and persistent depression, she immediately latches on to Rosemary (Abby Blankenship), an unruly fellow patient and the eldest daughter of kingmaker Joseph Kennedy. What starts out as an over-the-top comic skewering of social mores gains a tragic gravity as the “cure” for the women’s illnesses comes into sharper focus.
Ginny’s and Rosemary’s families want them to fit in and not embarrass them, so they resort to the latest, largely-unproven procedures to correct their behavior. When Rosemary’s lobotomy goes so badly that it leaves her permanently incapacitated, Ginny is forced to rethink her ardent desire to follow her friend into the operating room.
The conflict between the desire to be like everyone else and to hold on to what makes one unique is an evergreen problem, given a twist in Knight’s cheerfully tragic text. Each era has its quack cures that look barbaric in hindsight. I have no doubt that many 2020 treatments for mental and emotional troubles will be considered savage and inept within a couple decades. So cutting out chunks of brain matter to make women behave is, sadly, not as outlandishly archaic as it should be. The horrific final image of a roomful of patients dancing and singing in grotesque smile masks is now lodged in my head like a bad dream. v