Beautiful Madness: “The Walls” Explores Mental Illness at 5 & Dime Theatre

Kate McManus and Kat McLeod Raspa

The Walls, 5 & Dime Theatre Company, Jacksonville, Florida, Kat McLeod Raspa and Sinda Lee Nichols
Kat McLeod Raspa and Sinda Lee Nichols

The exploration of female insanity traces a dark path through times when women were often institutionalized for mental illness. Ribbons of tragedy and unimaginable suffering are entwined in their history, but there are also unexpected threads of hope woven into the individual stories. Playwright Lisa Dillman offers a fascinating portrayal of the elusive nature of madness and the resulting separation it can bring in The Walls, opening February 16th at 5 & Dime A Theater Company. Directed by Bradley Akers, the production runs through March 4th.

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Centered around a group of women and their families in three different time periods, the play studies the exploration of separation as a physical reality. The walls represent those of the dreaded past asylums and serve as a multi-layered metaphor for the often-impenetrable walls of our own perception, the subjective walls that divide every human relationship, the walls between the sick and the well and those created by psychotropic medications. “What The Walls does so beautifully is its exploration into how mental illness in women has been treated,” says director Bradley Akers. “The challenge was uncovering and going deep into how the mind works.”

Carrie is a scholarly young woman who confronts her mother’s mental illness and tragic death, as well as the possible consequences of her own complicated inheritance. She researches the stories of women who have suffered the social stigma of mental illness only to discover some unexpected lessons.

“It’s really unlike any show I’ve ever seen or done,” says Akers. “That’s really exciting for me. I like to challenge myself. The story travels through different time periods from the 1800s to the 1920s to contemporary, which is really a challenge to bring to the stage. There are a lot of nuances that many people will recognize and say, ‘I know that fight.’”

Akers approached the telling of this complicated story from a different angle. “This play hasn’t been produced commercially, so there is no kind of influence from outside productions,” he says. “You can’t go online and watch a clip. That really engages the entire creative process.”

With the support of an experienced cast, many of whom have real-life experience with someone struggling with mental illness, Akers was able to navigate the intricate time-bending story to create a layered portrait of survival and hope. The cast features Kat McLeod Raspa, Sinda Nichols, Kate McManus, Ricky Watson, Lindsay Curry, Joshua McTiernan, Kristin Alexander, and Sadie Akers.

“I could not have gotten luckier. The cast is who I think are some of the top artists in this town,” says Akers. “It is a really experienced cast who understand what the women in the show are going through. They have been able to dig in and that really makes the story tangible with concepts that are hard to explain and fully grasp.”

When embarking on the journey of writing The Walls, Dillman stripped her process down to the bare bones, working with an ensemble of actors to identify a subject and build the story as a collaborative effort based on case histories included in the book Voices from Behind the Walls: Women of the Asylum. The result was a revolution.

Kat McLeod Raspa, Ricky Watson and Sinda Lee Nichols

“There were horrifying stories. There were wonderful stories. It got me thinking, ‘Why is mental illness so scary?’ And I think in women particularly, it’s scary because of the sudden lack of control. When there is out of control behavior in a family, it takes the whole families’ psychic energy. In The Walls, the front story is Carrie and her mother and there is no family. There is just Carrie. The historical stories really support the front story.”

For Akers, he had the privilege of consulting with Dillman when bringing her words to life. The playwright offered invaluable insight into how and why the story was written, giving Akers an innate understanding of the character’s voices and the ability to tear down the walls to reach their truth. “It’s a play about rebirth and discovering what your unique place in the world is,” he says. “I think it’s really important.”

Kate McManus and Kat McLeod Raspa

The 5 & Dime, in conjunction with Hope McMath’s Yellow House and the non-profit organization I Still Matter, will exhibit a series meaningful art during the show’s run. Inside Out will take patrons on a visual journey through mental illness with candid works of art that convey to the viewer what it feels like to struggle with diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, OCD, and bipolar disorder. Inside Out explores self-harm and suicide and allows those living with mental illness a space to confront their feelings and, through art, try to make sense of it all.

Over 70 artists contributed to the project, creating a 12 x 12 canvas as a visual representation of their their own diagnosis. Family members who have experienced tragic loss due to a loved one’s mental illness have also contributed. Each canvas is extremely unique. Each brave individual participating in the project has “come out” about mental illness and is determined to help minimize the stigma.
Visit to learn more about I Still Matter and the Inside Out exhibit. For more information about The Walls, visit

About Liza Mitchell