When it comes to choosing plays, Lileana Blain-Cruz isn’t interested in easy. “I like tough things,” says the Obie-winning director. “That doesn’t always necessarily mean that the text has to be tough, but that it requires a sense of wrestling.” After all, life is complicated, and Blain-Cruz leans into art that reflects that. “There are times when the world feels so simple, and other times, the opposite… When a script can wrestle with that in a way that’s meaningful, that isn’t dismissive or easy, I get drawn to that. And if I’m honest, particularly with women at the center.”
Blain-Cruz’s latest project, the U.S. premiere of Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company, ticks all those boxes and more. A story about suicide and inheritance, Birch’s Blackburn Prize–winning play sees the lives of three generations of women play out simultaneously onstage. For each, the chaos of what came before brings a painful legacy.
Birch’s text presents singular challenges for a director, the most obvious its structure: three scenes (each set in a different time period) that unfold simultaneously (side-by-side-by-side) throughout. Blain-Cruz found this theatricality compelling. “I get excited by scripts that really embrace the fact that this has to happen in a theatre,” she says. “[In Anatomy of a Suicide] the simultaneity of those different experiences can only be uniquely represented on a stage.” Another challenge to consider is the scenic design—how does one represent three different eras onstage at the same time, which Blain-Cruz tackles with Mariana Sanchez, her “genius” scenic designer and frequent collaborator.
Blain-Cruz’s creative team is entirely female, a common feature of her productions and a fitting one for a play explicitly about mothers and daughters. Anatomy’s experimental form also speaks to the feminine nature of the story. “[It’s] such a beautiful metaphor for how our lives intersect with each other, but also, this sense of pain looping, and feeling stuck,” says Blain-Cruz. “And also that sense of interconnectedness… that circularity of femininity that I think is really exciting, and beautiful, and complicated.”
For Blain-Cruz, choosing to tell tough stories onstage is part of what helps keep the medium alive. “The best theatre, whether it’s hilarious or terrifying or sad, it makes you feel alive at the end of the day. I keep going for that rush. It’s when you feel alive that you feel there’s meaning and connection,” says Blain-Cruz. “It’s one of the few spaces where I feel affirmed about existence. It’s the reason why I keep fighting for the work.”