October 21, 2020

Passage Theatre Presents a Prerecorded Performance of  “Panther Hollow”; David Lee White Tackles Depression in Candid, Darkly Humorous Monologue

“PANTHER HOLLOW”: Passage Theatre presented, to ticketed YouTube viewers, a prerecorded video of “Panther Hollow.” Written and performed by David Lee White (above), and directed by John Augustine, this candid and wry monologue describes the artist’s struggles with clinical depression at age 25. (Photo by Michael Goldstein)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre has presented a prerecorded video of Panther Hollow. Writer and performer David Lee White’s candid, darkly humorous monologue was originally presented in March 2016, as part of Passage’s Solo Flights Festival. John Augustine was the stage director; the video was produced and directed by Susan Ryan.

In an introduction, Managing Director Damion Parran acknowledges that the video was donated by White to Passage, for use as a fundraiser for the company’s upcoming season. Although the video was distributed via YouTube, its presentation was treated as a theatrical event; ticket buyers were emailed a link that entitled them to view the performance from October 17-20.

White’s work with Passage has included serving as its managing director, and subsequently, its associate artistic director and resident playwright. Previously the company has presented his plays Blood: A Comedy, If I Could, In My Hood, I Would… and Slippery as Sin. Currently White is collaborating (with Richard Bradford and the members of The OK Trenton Ensemble) on The Ok Trenton Project, which is “scheduled to premiere as a full production in October of 2021,” according to Passage’s website.

In a video interview for Passage, White was asked about the process of writing Panther Hollow. He credits previous Solo Flights productions with its inspiration. “A lot of people would come on and do these shows, and over the years I got really fascinated with them,” White says. “I thought, ‘I wonder if this is something I can do.’” Offering a taste of the humor that pervades his monologue, White adds, “I had always wanted to tell the story of my battle with clinical depression … because first of all, I thought, ‘that’s going to be a laugh riot!’”

White explains that the recollection of this time in his life “felt like a story I had to offer … and the good news was that when I was 25 and going through this experience, I kept a notebook. So I kept a journal of all of these things that had happened to me … as I had moved across the country a number of times, I’ve kept this box filled with these journal pages and I thought, ‘well maybe it’s time to do something with them.’ So I started writing; it probably took me about eight months to a year to put the whole thing together.”

For Panther Hollow the stage is decorated with only a desk, on which two glasses of water have been provided; a wooden chair; a music stand; and a whiteboard. Sporting a royal blue shirt, with a dark grey jacket and slacks, a bespectacled White enters, carrying a journal. He sits, and smiles wryly as he briefly glances at the journal. Then he stands and addresses the audience.

He opens with a grim joke about three construction workers on the top floor of a skyscraper. During their lunch break the first two workers complain about the kind of sandwiches that have been packed for them. The third worker also does this, adding, “If I get tuna on rye one more time, I am throwing myself off this building!”

On the following day the first two workers are happy to have a different kind of sandwich. The third, however, still has tuna on rye. He “throws himself off of the building, and he plummets to the ground.” The first worker expresses sympathy and horror; the second worker offhandedly responds, “I know, he packs his own lunch.”

White matter-of-factly reveals that at age 25 he “was suffering from clinical depression, and living in Pittsburgh. Now, those two things didn’t necessarily have anything to do with one another!”

As we might expect given this opening, the show’s subject matter is somber. This is mitigated by White’s deadpan style of delivery, which is mixed with enough intensity (punctuated by jittery use of hand movement) to hold our curiosity as to what he will say next.

We learn the source of the play’s title. Panther Hollow is the name of the Pittsburgh neighborhood where White rented a century-old house, along with two roommates, when he was 25.

White recounts that one of his roommates was appearing in a play (The Real Inspector Hound), and asked him to perform as a corpse, to substitute for an actor who failed to arrive. White describes the anxiety attacks he experienced when, as he lay face down on stage, he could not take a complete breath. Matters worsened when actors rolled a sofa above his head. White achieves striking dramatic effect at this point, by pausing his speech to take several audibly deep, pained breaths.

One of the most disturbing segments is White’s description of a “black cloud” in his stomach, which dissipates when he imagines committing suicide. He confesses these thoughts to his “opposite sex platonic best friend” Karen, who insists that he talk to a therapist. He finally finds a psychiatrist — identified as Dr. Woods — who treats him, despite his lack of means to pay her fee.

Dr. Woods offers a moving description of the purpose of cognitive therapy, which she compares to a record player. “Every experience that we have in life creates a groove in our record. Sometimes our record gets a scratch in it, and we’re forced to listen to the same distorted sound, over and over and over again. And the purpose of therapy is not to get rid of the scratches; the purpose of therapy is to lift the needle over the scratch, and place it back down on the record, so that the music can continue to play.”

A theme that emerges from Augustine’s staging, and White’s performance, is the extent to which an artist’s surroundings and life experiences become a part of their work. A photo of White as a younger (25-year-old) man is placed on the whiteboard; throughout the monologue White adds images related to his topics of discussion.

These images include a photo of a skyscraper to illustrate his opening joke; drawings of women he either encounters or dreams about; and items connected with his therapy sessions, including a couch and a tissue. In some cases White removes images, choosing which thoughts will remain as part of a collage.

The collage also provides a grim visual summary of the danger in White’s story. At one point, the photo of White is placed in the same (middle) horizontal register as a list of Pittsburgh’s suicide victims. In the top row are images of the means of the suicides, including a bridge and a tree. On the bottom are the images connected with the therapy sessions. This juxtaposition allows the audience to ask: will White’s name be added to those who chose to end their life, or will therapy save him?

An answer comes from a concluding sequence in which White describes walking “through the lost neighborhood, past the tree, up the 136 steps, out of Panther Hollow”; the physical location becomes a metaphor for his struggles at that time in his life. He imagines a conversation in which he upbraids his younger self for his problems. Pointing at his photograph, he adds, “But he’s not going to listen to me. And you know what? He shouldn’t, because I owe him big for the life I have now.”

For information about Passage Theatre’s upcoming events, call (609) 392-0766 or visit passagetheatre.org.