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Addressing Domestic Violence

UWM Presents 'Surviving The Cycle' at Kenilworth

Apr. 30, 2014
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Surviving the Cycle, a play written and directed by Richard Gustin, recently completed five performances at the Kenilworth Studio 508 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The play was a cross-disciplinary production focusing on abusive relationships with a cast made up of UWM social work, marketing, film and education students as well as theater students from Marquette University and members of the community.

The play begins with a frightened woman speaking to her therapist and eventually shows a young couple entangled in the subtle manipulations of teen dating and courtship. Fast forward to the eventual marriage of the couple, caught in a progression of controlling behaviors and increasing isolation as they fall into their respective victim roles. As audience members we witness the transformation of the attitudes, beliefs and behavior passed on to their two sons. The sons adapt in different ways to the messages. One becomes an overt aggressor while the other adopts a more vigilant need to do well. In another scene, a manipulative partner and a passive partner portray with all the expectations typically found in an often unconscious, abusive dating situation.

Shortly into the one-hour production, the 15 cast members flood the stage and, as if in a Greek chorus, begin shouting out a torrent of negative beliefs and attitudes, mirroring the opinions of parents and children often caught in a cycle of victimhood and perpetuation. This powerful vocalization represented different ages, genders and walks of life. The messages were searing and bold and ranged from “Who would want to marry someone like you?” or “You’ve got your mother’s brains!” to “If I was as stupid as you look!” or “She’s not like us, she doesn’t fit in!” Each remark painfully echoed verbal messages in varying degrees of acquiescence to justified manipulation, emotional, verbal and physical threats of abuse.

The play effectively portrays the isolation that is all too often the norm in dysfunctional families and other relational systems. The isolation heightens the stress experienced by each family member within the circle, which exacerbates the feelings of low self-esteem making it unlikely that one is able to reach out for the help necessary to break the cycle.

Watching the performance, we witness the patterns of abuse and how a response to such abuse is shaped by the individual's life experience and support system. Each response has the potential to become an ongoing pattern affecting all areas of the individual's life. Subsequent behaviors form the background to what is increasingly seen as trauma in the field of psychotherapy.

Following the performance, UW-Milwaukee Helen Bader School of Social Welfare Clinical Prof. Roberta Hanus facilitated a talk back session. Audience members and cast, as well as the author, offered their impressions and experiences regarding the performance. It was clear the play touched the audience and cast deeply, provoking a range of emotions including sadness, shame, fear and rage.  The cast shared their experiences in taking on their roles, describing what they learned about themselves and others in the process. The playwright-director Richard Gustin explained his intent to be subtle in showing the actual abuse between the characters so as to avoid a focus on violence that might be a distraction from the other themes in the play.

In this play, Gustin gives us a tool that may be used effectively in outreach and education in addressing domestic violence and the many resulting problems. The performance invited us to be a part not only of surviving, but also helping to break, the cycle. 


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