Created, written, and performed by Jessica Hendy (Cats; Aida; Amour) in the relatable everyday clothing of jeans, sneakers, and a tee-shirt, the new solo musical Walking with Bubbles, now playing a limited engagement at AMT Theater, follows the deeply personal autobiographical journey of the Broadway actress, singer, and single mother through the impact of her ex-husband’s untreated and often volatile mental illness on her life and career, and on their son Beckett, whom she affectionately nicknamed Bubbles. Directed with compelling pacing and affecting compassion by Richard Hess, the intimate first-person story is told in the format of direct address to the audience, interspersed with seven expressive narrative songs, with music and lyrics by Brianna Kothari Barnes, delivered in Hendy’s powerful emotive voice, and beautifully accompanied on guitar by Barnes and piano by Alexandra Crosby.
Hendy’s gripping performance combines vulnerability, strength, and humanity with moments of humor, frustration, and pain as she takes us through time to her private backstory of meeting and falling in love with Adam (a writer and the seemingly perfect match for the actress), her decision to forgo her successful career in NYC to become a mother, and, to help alleviate his struggle with “winter blues,” to move to sunny St. Thomas, where she became pregnant and enjoyed a happy two years.
But her husband’s seasonal affective disorder soon evolves into clinical depression and increasing mania, resulting in their return to her native Ohio for the support of her family, erratic episodes that lead to their divorce and custody arrangement (“A Man I Used to Know”), and her move back to New York with the boy, where they were followed by the unemployed and homeless Adam, living on the streets, still resisting medical treatment, and meeting at public places in the city with Bubbles, who loves his father and wants to be with him.
Through it all, Jessica – who assumes the voices and demeanors of the other real-life characters in her one-woman narrative – tries to help, explains Adam’s diagnosis to Bubbles with a simple drawing of his brain, and allows visitation (“Just Saturday”), until a frightening incident forces her to face the reality of their situation, the need to move on (“What If”), and the value of telling her story (“One Page at a Time”) by bringing the taboo subject into the spotlight as an important part of healing.
The songs and background instrumentation (music supervision by Jacob Yates) and the changing colors and intensity of light (lighting design by Aiden Bezark) reinforce the shifting moods of the recounted characters and events, and the efficient set (scenic design by Mark Halpin) allows for Jessica’s active movement around the stage, while evoking the clouded perspective and unraveling of Adam’s mind and suggesting the damage he did to the walls of their home in his bouts with mania.
Hendy’s experience in Walking with Bubbles is heartrending but ultimately uplifting, and as she notes, after making the brave decision not to hide the truth but to share it with others, she discovered that it’s something many people can relate to in their own lives, with their own family and friends. It’s clearly cathartic for her and for them, and deeply moving for everyone, so be sure to bring tissues when you go – there weren’t many dry eyes in the house when I attended, but there were cheers of joy for her new beginning and her triumphant return to the stage.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.