When two people enter into a relationship together, there is some mutual understanding that each will be there for the other person: in good times and in bad. However, what makes this a terrifying and beautiful choice is that one can never fully understand what another person is feeling and going through. But what if you could? That’s what EMPATHITRAX by Ana Nogueira, now on stage at Philadelphia Theatre Company, tries (and mostly succeeds) to explore. How could knowing exactly what another person is feeling change your relationship, for better or for worse?
The show focuses on a nameless couple (Makoto Hirano and Claire Inie-Richards) who have hit a rough patch in their romantic relationship. They’re not connecting like they used to, and decide to take this new drug that will give them the ability to feel the raw emotions that the other person is feeling through physical touch. Throughout the course of the 6 pill treatment the couple experience all the love, lust, hurt, anger, sadness, and joy they have for each other, while navigating whether they want to continue on in the relationship.
Claire Inie-Richards shines as Her, bringing a raw energy to a character struggling with mental illness. She shows a wide range of feeling and emotion, handling the high peaks and low valleys of her character with a deftness and nuance that was engaging to watch. She is given a lot of the heavier emotional beats in the show, and wonderfully captures them. Makato Hirano as Him brings a fun sense of humor and lightness to the show. While not having to tackle as heavy an emotional arc as his spouse, he deftly handles his scenes and leaves an impression, specifically with an intentionally-comedic accent choice towards the end of the show that felt both French and like Kermit the frog. While both performers had their moments to shine, there did feel like a slight lack of chemistry between the two; I could understand how they had gotten to this dire point in their relationship, but was wondering what had drawn them to each other in the first place.
The third member of the cast is Matteo Scammell pulling double duty as Joe and Matty D. These two characters couldn’t be more different than each other, but both serve primarily to lighten the mood. His turn as Matty D. in particular is hysterical, while also helping to add some levity to the plot, and challenge our couple as an outsider looking in. A scene between Scammell and Inie-Richards was a particular highlight, as two people who are wildly different are forced to interact.
This show tackles the extremely difficult topic of mental illness and the responsibility that partners have in understanding and supporting each other through such a struggle. At times it felt refreshing in its depiction of depression, but also somewhat divisive about its impact on relationships. There’s not a clear right or wrong here, and this show depicts both characters making choices that harm the other, and dealing with the fallout of that.
Director Nell Bang-Jensen does a good job supporting the script and crafts a world that fully supports the characters’ journeys. While I did initially think that the set and stage of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre at PTC felt too big for the story that was being told, through some very clever and imaginative stagecraft at the end of the show, it all came together and made the vastness of the apartment they share make sense thematically.
EMPATHITRAX is a thought-provoking show that raises the question of whether it’s a blessing or a curse to know what your partner is actually thinking and feeling. It tackles a lot of heavy concepts, but does so with levity and gravitas in equal doses, making this show a pill worth swallowing.
[Philadelphia Theatre Company, 480 S. Broad St.] February 10-March 5 2023; phialdelphiatheatrecomapny.org