Driven to Insanity: Nika Tomljenovic's Take on Toxic Relationships

June 19, 2018



          Nika Tomljenovic’s original play Medicine (Directed by Ken Wolf) takes the audience on an emotional and thought provoking ride. It features the relationship between Billie (Samantha Proctor) and Jon (Lucas Niedzialkowski), in both the past and the present. Switching between the two, the ‘car’ provides the setting for the current situation, while the rest of the stage provides locations for flashbacks and memories.


          We start in present time, in the car. Jon seems determined to annoy Billie - insisting to come along, constant talking, poking, and radio fiddling, even mooning fellow passengers - while Billie struggles to hide her jitters and stress from where she’s going, instead focusing her anger solely Jon. Proctor and Niedzialkowski have great chemistry, their back and forth (lighthearted on his end, angry on hers) is fast paced and witty.  Proctor shows us strong emotion while holding back something palpable that we won’t learn of until later in the show. Jon is unwavering in his attempts to get Billie’s attention on him, Niedzialkowski brings this to life in a well timed, funny - albeit sometime crossing the line into childish - and unrelenting way. This demanding and sometimes childish behavior is in contrast with his past self, as we see in the first flashback.


          We see the couple a few years prior, when they were still in a romantic relationship. Jon is  studying for his college courses, feeling completely overwhelmed with his workload - something most of us can relate to - while Billie tries to convince him to come to a human rights rally with her. It’s here that we learn Billie has a strong desire to help others and do the right thing. Jon considers dropping out of his classes, saying that he can’t do it. Billie assures him that he can if he just keeps trying. Supporting him and offering to help study, we see the love between the pair. They’re playful and romantic as they get distracted by each other, which makes it almost jarring as we switch back to current time.


          We’re back in the car with the no-longer-couple, and tensions are high. Billie doesn’t want to be reminded of their past relationship. In this scene we learn that Billie is a journalist, and that her dad created a pharmaceutical pill to cure depression, supposedly with no side effects. It is also revealed here that Jon is engaged to be married the following October, to a woman named Victoria. This news shocks Billie, but Jon gives her no time to recover before shooting into more prying questions, this time asking who the man at Billie’s apartment was before they got in the car.

"To paraphrase Tomljenovic, a car has the potential to take you everywhere or nowhere, it just depends on who’s driving it."


          We flash back to Billie’s apartment, the actors pushing a door frame from center stage to stage right in a simple yet effective way of differentiating the two apartments. The whole show works this way, the actors moving select few set pieces, wasting no time with large or elaborate set changes. In a one act show where Proctor never leaves the stage, this speed and fluidity is key. The scene takes place minutes before Billie got in the car and started driving with Jon. We see Jon standing outside the slightly ajar door, listening in. Billie is arguing with a man we soon learn is her boyfriend, Aaron (Matt ‘UgLy’ McGlade). They’re in a heated argument; Proctor bringing to life determination and stubbornness as she acts out her side of the argument. McGlade, though having genuine moments of desperation while trying to convince her not to leave, seems unable to keep up with Proctor. Billie is about to leave for the airport to sell a story to a major publication that will in turn destroy Aaron’s reputation in the pharmaceutical world. As the scene goes on an ultimatum is brought forth, Aaron saying that if Billie goes to sell this story, then their relationship is over.  Billie runs into Jon as she walks out the door.


          Back in the car, Proctor continues to get more and more emotional. As Jon compares Billie to her dad (a great insult to Billie, who is on her way to the airport to expose her father’s dark secrets that make him evil in her eyes), Billie argues, insisting on her hatred of her father and love of her ex boyfriend, Aaron. This scene, full of quick, angry back and forths between the ex lovers brings the energy up to a high level before a flashback takes us to a sudden halt.


          We are now in Billie’s grade school days. This scene is as minimalistic as it gets, with Billie starting the scene center stage behind a closed door. With her disembodied voice and her father and his mistress being recorded voices playing offstage (The only time we hear any characters other than Billie, Jon, and Aaron), this part of the scene focuses solely on listening, a tactic which is not generally what you expect from a theatre show, but had us hanging on every word. When Billie does emerge through the door, catching her father in the act, we see nothing more than her face, illuminated by the single spotlight on stage. A moment of shock quickly turns to anguish as tears swell in her eyes, a beautiful display of emotion by Proctor with no assistance outside of a light, a recorded voice, and her imagination. This scene is brief and powerful, then we’re back in the car.


          The final three scenes - taking place in the car, Billie’s house, and the car again, respectively - all contain surprising twists that leave the audience questioning everything they’ve learned about the story thus far.


          In the finale, we see Billie fall into a mental breakdown. With a screaming Billie and a pleading Jon claiming two different realities, we are left wondering what actually happened. Did Jon really come to check up on Billie because she was going off the deep end, and needed help? Did Jon drive her to insanity? Or was all of this a schizophrenic hallucination due to Billie herself being a test subject in the trial? It's up for interpretation, perhaps depending on if your romantic or cynic side is the more powerful one. The fact that Billie never leaves the stage and is a part of every conversation - therefore we are, more or less, in Billie’s mind - might lead one to believe that it was all in her head. However, when asked to sum up Medicine in 3 words, Tomljenovic replied “Who drove who?” An intriguing answer that might lead you to believe Jon really was coming back for Billie, once again letting the audience decide if Jon manipulated her out of love in his attempts to help her, or out of a hunger for power over an already ill young woman.


          This production was skillfully done, the simplistic style being exactly what Medicine needed. A door frame was all that was needed to separate the three rooms. The car, though not realistic in appearance, made the separation between current time and memories perfectly clear. However, the car represents more than the time of the scene taking place. To paraphrase Tomljenovic, a car has the potential to take you everywhere or nowhere, it just depends on who’s driving it. She points out that the same can be said for relationships, or even life itself. With infinite places to go, the ride can be thrilling. Or, if you're stuck with the wrong person, it can be a disaster. And sometimes when you get caught up in the speed of things, you forget that you can get out.


          Tomljenovic hopes to see Medicine come to her hometown of Toronto now that it’s finished its’ run here in New York. As for Tomljenovic, she is currently finishing her first year at City University of London, studying in the Master’s Program in Creative Writing, and preparing to write a full length play after spending the summer doing research. In the past she has written two other plays, called Spectacular and Boo.  We can look forward to seeing what this actor-turned-screenwriter has in store.


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