‘The Willard Suitcases’ unpacks the re-imagined voices of psychiatric patients at American Shakespeare Center

First, dear reader, a confession—for which I fully expect to be pilloried, drawn and quartered, then maybe burned at the stake:  I’m not a huge fan of musicals these days.

Sylvie Davidson in ‘The Willard Suitcases’ by Julianne Wick Davis. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

Yeah, I know, there was a huge hoo-ha over some ditties about a Founding Father a couple years back, but, well, I had other stuff to do. So no, I never went.  [Ducks to avoid first barrage of brick-bats.]

That said, I’m about to make a huge exception to my curmudgeonly ways. Julianne Wick Davis’ new musical, The Willard Suitcases, now receiving its world premiere run at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, could inspire future musical successes like this production here because of the way it opens audiences up to a world of the many forgotten souls we have left behind.  

Or, just as likely, those forgotten souls we step over on the way somewhere else downtown.

The Willard Suitcases was inspired by the discovery of some 400 suitcases in an attic when the Willard Psychiatric Center, a mental institution in Upstate New York, was closed out and emptied. Each suitcase contained traces of the life of a former inmate with tantalizing clues of the lives they had to leave behind.  

Nancy Anderson in ‘The Willard Suitcases’ by Julianne Wick Davis. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

Photographer Jon Crispin, working with the New York State Museum (where the suitcases are now part of their permanent collection), began documenting the contents of each suitcase, and the resulting collection of photos is touching and truly fascinating.  Respect for these individuals dictate that we can only know their first names and last initial – Charles F, Anna G—but that’s really all you need to know. The rest is in the suitcase.

If, like me, you’ve known someone who had to be committed—or, worse, someone who didn’t deserve to be committed but was, anyway—both Crispin’s photos, and Davis’ musical treatment inspired by them, are moving testaments to what might have been.

The Willard Suitcases is an occasion to ponder that thin line between freedom and incarceration, between dull uniforms and fancy dress, between sanity and what was considered madness for much of the Willard’s history.

Director Ethan McSweeny has given Davis’ work the royal, American Shakespeare Center treatment, with acoustical accompaniment provided by the cast, and a Blackfriars stage cluttered to the rafters with old suitcases, not to mention a discarded musical instrument or two. In a neat piece of business, the stage’s trap door—used so often for ghosts and demons beneath the stage—opens up as the cast assembles, surrounded by their memories—the demons upstairs, in more than one sense of the word. As the sheets are tucked away, a piano and guitar emerge, along with a plethora of other stuff, and with Chris Johnston’s opening number, the thematic “What Would You Pack,” you’re on your way.

The subject is, admittedly, a downer—a parade of 18 inmates, baring their souls. But we’ve been down a few dark roads before, musically speaking, and if an entire evening devoted to presidential assassins can draw a crowd, Davis’ evening of broken and lost souls should surely find a large, appreciative audience long after its initial run here.

Zoe Speas in ‘The Willard Suitcases’ by Julianne Wick Davis. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

Each song has its accompanying suitcase, whose photo is mounted on an easel upstage (you can purchase a nicely-bound copy of some of Crispin’s photos in the Blackfriars lobby). Personal highlights include Zoe Speas’ “Art of Practice,” about Irma, a child-prodigy musician who breaks under the pressure of a professional career, and Nancy Anderson’s somber “Look in My Window” about Laverne, whose desperate loneliness drives her to exhibitionism—balanced by Anderson’s devious turn as Agnes in “Dear President Mr. Herbert Hoover,” about a schoolgirl who flips out when her theft of a White House souvenir postcard is revealed by a snitch (rhymes with “bitch,” you know).

Also notable among the inmates is Anna—sung here hauntingly by Sylvie Davidson—who, in “The Switch,” details a history of abuse that ends in her being wrongly committed by her demented husband. And although most of the stories are set – like Tracy Christensen’s nicely-assembled costumes—in the early 20th century, we even have a denizen of the 60’s, whose Beatlemania may have truly taken her around the bend (Zoe Speas again, as Mary Agnes in “Liverpool Lads”).  

The stories are, of course, fictional—it would violate all kinds of confidentiality laws otherwise—which makes Davis’ inventiveness here all the more remarkable. Davis has set herself the task of composing more songs inspired by the hundreds of suitcases Crispin will be documenting, which means that future productions of The Willard Suitcases can be assembled and sequenced by future ensembles as they see fit. No two productions need be the same. It’s a remarkable prospect, well worth waiting for.

What I also find so delightful about the Blackfriars treatment of The Willard Suitcases is that it strips the musical—which in its Broadway incarnation I find so cloying and tame—to its bare essentials, sans mikes, sans pit orchestra, just you and the characters in an intimate space. And a lot of heart. As McSweeny moves onto more seasons here at the American Shakespeare Center, I suspect he’ll be able to mine many of the shows I have avoided for years, and show me how watchable they truly are.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with one intermission.

The Willard Suitcases presented by The American Shakespeare Center plays through December 1, 2019, at Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 S. Market Street in Staunton, VA. For tickets, you can call 540-851-1733 or go online.


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