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Sophie Craig / Screenshot from Zoom

Staged across kaleidoscopic flashbacks on Elijah Reyes’ 22nd birthday, “Anointed with Gasoline” is a delicate, beautifully acted portrait of queer love and mental illness.

Playwright Abigail Duclos, BC ’23, gives her queer romance a happy ending—a “Love Actually” finale. After coming out to an accepting mother, Duclos’ protagonist hightails it across town to reunite with her high-school sweetheart. All of this, from confession to door-step, happens in just twelve minutes.

“There are so many movies of lesbians I have seen that are so sad at the end,” Duclos said. “You know, one of them dies, they never end up together ... and when I was writing this, I was really cognizant of that and wanted there to be queer joy.”

From March 18 to 20, New and Original Material Authored and Directed by Students streamed “Anointed with Gasoline,” written by Duclos and directed by Kathy Fang, CC ’24, on YouTube. The play unfolds in a fictional rural town in Appalachia over the course of one day, the 22nd birthday of Elijah Reyes, played by Isobel Obrecht, BC ’22.

The play began as a short story in the fall of Duclos’ first year, but the bulk of the playwriting took place during the coronavirus pandemic. Duclos described the writing process as an exploration of memory; while writing, she could file through the images that linger from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania, from the “little makeshift fire-pits” her brother used to build in their backyard to a house engulfed in flames for a local fire department’s training exercises.

“I just remember that warmth, wanting that, and kind of going back and forth between the healing nature of fire to the more destructive nature of it,” she said.

We spend the afternoon in Eli’s therapist’s office, jumping back and forth between memories of her first love, Jesse Parker, and traumatic episodes of homophobic violence. Co-lighting designers Kalina Ko, BC ’21, and Alli Salwen, BC ’21, cast every jump in time in a new monochromatic light, recoloring the white-sheeted set and the blue of Obrecht’s hair—and pushing the play just outside the boundaries of realism.

Frenetic and sharp-tongued, Obrecht has the pent-up energy of a ticking pipe bomb up to the very last scene. When we first meet her, Eli is sitting on the kitchen floor of her childhood home, scowling at her mother, Miriam, played by Alexis Buncich, CC ’21. She speaks in short bursts, her delivery tense and acerbic, while Miriam lays out exposition for the audience and party supplies on the counter. As promised by its title, “Anointed with Gasoline” is full of symbolism of combustion: Mid-16th century stake burnings, cabins going up in flames, smoke-filled ovens, lit cigarettes—even the name Elijah itself:

“When Elijah was born,” Miriam recites to Eli, “his father Sobach saw in a vision angels of God around him. They swaddled him with fire and fed him with flames.”

By introducing fire like Chekhov introduces a gun, Duclos seems to place Eli on a one-way track to becoming an arsonist. During her session with the tonally antiseptic Dr. Wright, played by Bella Fenn, CC ’24, we learn that Eli may have been responsible for a classmate’s third-degree burns. As Dr. Wright coaxes her into a flashback like a prosecutor leading a witness, we step through a yellow light into her senior year—into the moment she meets Jesse, played by Deanna Cuadra, CC ’21.

Duclos explained that Dr. Wright’s prosecutorial technique is not exactly proper therapist etiquette. This behavior hints at the larger ambiguity of her character and leads us to question whether she actually exists. In a brief glossary of mental health disorders published on its website, NOMADS clarifies that Eli has depersonalization-derealization disorder, which should be treated with psychotherapy to “safely and thoughtfully” explore trauma.

“Sometimes I have this ongoing sense of detachment,” Eli says. “Like I’m watching my life from afar. Like I’m talking to myself. Like I’m my own therapist, or something, and my whole life is just me telling myself about things that have happened.”

By carefully constructing the ambiguity of their relationship, Duclos offers us an incredible window into Eli’s experience of the world. In fact, the show’s director, Kathy Fang, approached her own directing from the perspective that Dr. Wright does exist, so that together they would reach a stunningly delicate, liminal state. Thus, “Anointed with Gasoline” is dissociative, but it is not surreal.

“I think something … that was really important for me with this show was [that] it was a kind of honest expression of mental illness,” Duclos said. “I wanted people who have mental health struggles to be able to watch this and feel less alone in what they’re experiencing.”

Duclos piles suspense like kindling, priming us to expect a pyrotechnic, catastrophic finale. But it would be a mistake to conflate the play’s catharsis with Eli’s arsonist tendencies. Even though she has been symbolically doused with gasoline; even though she has been historically sentenced to the stake; even though we have come to expect tragedy from the genre of queer romance itself—the triumph of “Anointed with Gasoline” is that Eli doesn’t burn. The play closes with a quiet warmth, a happy ending, in which Eli can finally let go of her guilt and open up to her loved ones.

“I wanted a place to heal, and I think when I was able to sit down late at night, all along, and write, I felt like I was able to get so much off my chest,” Duclos said. “And it’s kind of a bigger middle-finger to COVID and to mental illness and to addiction and to struggle and everything to just be like, ‘I’m going to keep on going.’”

Editor’s Note: Kathy Fang is a staff writer in Spectator’s news section. She was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.

Staff writer Sophie Craig can be contacted at Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

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NOMADS Abigail Duclos, Isobel Obrecht Kathy Fang Anointed with Gasoline
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