Slain in the Spirit, a new play written and directed by Lisa Milinazzo, is based on the life of Andrea Yates, the Huston, Texas woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. Molly (played with conviction by Emily Meier) is a driven, overachieving and lonely woman. In high school she was captain of the swim team, after college she studies to become a nurse, and when she’s ready for love and marriage she introduces and ingratiates herself to Danny (Josh Alscher) her next-door neighbor.
Molly grew up in an evangelical Christian home, and Danny (we are led to believe) was a directionless agnostic until Molly’s love brought him to Christ. He wants a lot of kids for typical, secular male reasons, and she wants them because she sees it as her Christian duty. After their first son is born Molly experiences her first psychotic break: when the baby cries she hears demons whispering. Despondent and clearly depressed, she doubles down on Bible study and prayer and three more children are born.
Of course, Molly’s attacks get worse with each subsequent child. Danny starts to worry about Molly’s mental health, but for her part Molly distrusts doctors, presumably because they are secular atheists. At his wits end, Danny meets Pastor Lloyd Rawneck (Spencer Aste) in a parking lot and invites him over for dinner. Pastor Lloyd is an “itinerant” preacher — I use scare quotes around “itinerant” because it’s clear that Pastor Lloyd is homeless, and despite his explanation that he intentionally wanders for Jesus, the play leaves the question open to doubt. Pastor Lloyd tells Danny and Molly that they too should embrace the discipline of the road, so they move into a trailer with their four boys. As you may have guessed, this only makes matters worse.
The voices talking to Molly become louder and more insistent. She must kill the children. Their voices growling like demons, they beg her to kill them. Debbie (Katie Curri), a neighbor at the trailer park befriends her, and Molly confesses suffering incessantly from fantasies of knives and blades mutilating her children. Molly tries to kill herself, and Danny moves them back into a house in hopes she will find some stability. She gets pregnant again with a daughter. The voices become too much for her to bear, and when Danny leaves for work, she fills a bathtub and drowns them all. Her trial and sentencing are dispatched in two minutes, and in the final scene Debbie visits Molly in prison to read the Bible with her. Molly tells Debbie of a dream she has where a light is chasing her in a tunnel. It always catches her.
Ms. Milinazzo makes some important departures from Andrea Yeats’s story that give us a clue to how we should read this play. First, Danny is more working class than Russell “Rusty” Yates, who was an engineer for NASA. Also, Pastor Lloyd is more “itinerant” than his real-life original Michael Peter Woroniecki. This mythologizing version of the Yates’s story focuses on the link between poverty and charismatic Christianity, the “guns and religion” thesis that reduces faith to ignorance. (This, by the way, was the press’s preferred narrative at the time of Andrea Yates’s trial.)
Second, the doctors’ role in Ms. Yates’s tragedy is alluded to but downplayed. In the play they want to help Molly, but Molly refuses — out of superstitious ingnorance. In Ms. Yates’s story, her family accused the doctors of prescribing anti-depressants that later were determined to cause increased psychosis, thoughts of suicide and “homicidal ideation.” The play could have taken this route and made the scientistic faith of the doctors an equal partner in the blame. It could have also focused on the hidden patriarchal prejudices of Molly’s doctors, rather than simply assuming that patriarchy is a function of Abrahamic religion. This would have expanded and strengthened the implied religious critique of Slain in the Spirit; unfortunately, as it stands the play sometimes openly panders to the prejudices of its New York audience.
But the opportunities Ms. Milinazzo misses in her script she makes up for in the superb direction of her very talented cast of actors and the work of her creative team. The sounds and lights by Gerome Samonte and Jeff Nash, working with Jane Stein’s spare set and frighteningly imaginative masks (worn by the devils that torment Molly) give Slain in the Spirit the look and feel of classic horror movie or nail-biting psychological thriller. Ms. Meier’s depiction of Molly layers emotion on desire with climbing and ineluctable intensity, an intensity made explosively dangerous by the visceral desires sublimated under deep religiosity. Molly’s character development is mirrored in Mr. Aste’s Pastor and Kathleen Goldpaugh’s Loretta, veteran actors who bring ballast to the work.
The phrase “slain in the spirit” refers to the effect of laying on of hands, where a sinner is struck down (and usually falls down) in front of the congregation when the healing energy of the Lord passes to them. In evangelical Christian churches it is both the literal and metaphorical death of the sinner’s soul — the part that can die — and the rebirth of that soul into Christ. Slain in the Spirit is a dramatization of the long death of a woman’s soul and her quest to find rebirth, even in the murder of her children.