It has a catchy title, interesting character sketches and some strong actors. But “Pop Goes the Noggin,” playwright Michele Lepsche’s 1970s-set play about the staff and female residents of a fictional Minnesota mental hospital ward, is not yet fully baked.
The playwright basically admitted as much Thursday in her introduction to the 90-minute one-act, now playing at St. Paul’s Gremlin Theatre under the aegis of SOS Theater. Lepsche announced to patrons that she came down with an illness in February that “almost cost me my life.”
Director Kari Steinbach and dramaturge Greta Grosch, who also acts in the show as a smiling, Minnesota Nice version of Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” put it together from the playwright’s notes. By that standard, what’s onstage is an accomplishment.
The narrative orbits the residents and staff of the kind of catchall health care facility that once housed people with physical and mental ailments. It’s a show about how benighted science was in those days. It’s also a show about how far we have come.
“Noggin” is set in 1972 at Loon Lake State Hospital, modeled after Moose Lake State Hospital, a venue the playwright toured as a teenager. The action takes place during the critical week before Loon Lake State is set to close, dispersing its listless residents to group homes.
The residents include Shirley Jean (Ellen Apel), a trusting innocent who orders all kinds of useless things through the mail and desperately wants to get out of the hospital to see Neil Diamond at the State Fair. There’s also Mamie Gross (Elizabeth Efteland in a heartbreaking turn), a wheelchair-bound fantasist who brags about her I.Q. and her college prospects and dreams of seeing her family in St. Paul. And there’s Tiny (Katherine J. Lee), a sullen, quiet figure who was ironically named.
When Bella Van Horton (Catherine Johnson Justice) arrives on the ward, things heat up. We learn that she’s a stressed housewife whose husband sent her there for a break (maybe, we can’t take her word for anything). Bella is smarter and more empowered than all the other patients. She has a key to the cabinet with patient files. She uses persuasion, food bribes and whatever it takes to work her will, which involves plotting an escape from Loon State.
In contours large and small, the play, billed as a dark comedy, cannot escape the shadow of “Cuckoo’s Nest.” Justice’s well-drawn and intriguing Bella is the McMurphy of the group — the catalyst and instigator who changes the trajectory of the action. But Bella is more soft-spoken and cunning than the cracked character brought to life on screen by Jack Nicholson.
There is good work by the cast, including Apel as Shirley Jean. This central character tugs at our emotions with her yearning and virtue. But the stirred-up emotions would land in a better place if the action were clearer, the characters more sharply drawn and the sense of listlessness that pervades the show gathered into something much more poetic and focused.
“Noggin” has many distinct Minnesota touches, including the Loon Lake State name, a reference to our state bird. Here’s hoping one day it can fly.