At first glance there might not seem to be much that connects Hamza Bangash’s last theater venture Baraf Pani with his current collaboration with Taskeen Suno. The first is a low-key romance intertwined with nostalgia while the latter is a serious look at the effects of mental illness on a family. There is however a clear thorough line between the two and plenty of Bangash trademarks.   Most notably both plays center around the not uncommon challenges of average people. Using routine events and specific characters to tell a universal story.

The goal is not merely to entertain or try to be important by tackling "big" themes of society.  Instead Suno makes as direct a grab for the heart by focusing on the things we may take for granted.  This brave and unique effort, which opened Wednesday night at the Arts Council, focuses on the anguish that destroys what looks like a typical family and attempts to detangle it.

When 1 in 4 people experience a mental health issue in their lifetimes, it is a shame that there is such a stigma attached to talking about it. This play seeks to dispel the stigma surrounding very real diseases and frames them more positively without trivializing mental health or belittling the very real suffering thousands of people and their families experience every day.

In a society where any divergence from the norm is considered a weakness, denial with a smile is the go to solution.  Pretending nothing is wrong and burying it deep is preferable to admitting a loss of control and seeking help.

The protagonist of Suno the teenage Gulzar, evokes empathy not just for his affliction but for the loneliness and disconnection it creates.  He knows something is wrong but because he cannot pinpoint exactly what it is he hesitates to share it with anyone. Instead he goes through spectrum of moods anger, yearning, sorrow, and guilt until he cannot take it anymore. He no longer enjoys the things he used to, doesn’t interact with his friends like he wants, and most importantly isn’t able to focus or think clearly.

At one point he wishes for cancer because having a tangible ailment to point to and say “this is what’s wrong” is a relief compared to being a prisoner of your own mind. Feeling that your brain is wrong or broken, that a part of you is out of your control is devastating and cyclical. Berating yourself for having a problem intensifies the problem.  Perhaps there is liberation in acknowledging and accepting where it hurts.

The play starts with the grandfather’s death that triggers Gulzar's illness and has and impact on the other members of his family. Bangash addresses difficult issues and asks tough questions through reflection and recrimination with a few visits to doctors.

Every character is smart and likable, doing their best can in a difficult situation,making us care about their fate. The parents Sohail Rizvi and Afia Rizvi (played by Hammad Siddiq and Syeda Danya Zaidi couldn't be more convincing. Danya embodies the desperation of a woman trying to hold her family together with beautiful complexity. She’s often caught between what her husband wants and what is best for her son. Hammad creates a strikingly sympathetic account of a man feeling powerless in the face of his son’s troubles. He cannot understand what went wrong and is so desperate to “fix” Gulzar that he ends up hurting him. Yasmeen Hashmi as Sofiya is lovely as a caring friend who has no idea how to help Gulzar. She patiently puts up with his paranoia and dismissiveness while trying her best to get through to him. Hadi Bin Arshad plays Gulzar as authentic a portrait of a personality divided against itself as you'll encounter. Some of the other characters: Sofiya’s parents, Gulzar’s grandmother and the psychologists were not as well developed and behaved more like plot devices than people.

Mental health and emotional well being awareness have recently emerged in the public consciousness. Several articles and personal essays have been written on the subject. However seeing something physically represented on a stage has a greater emotional impact than reading it on the page. The beauty of theatre is that you are there; you are experiencing it as it happens in front of you.

The concept is skillfully communicated in the staging and integrated with striking visual design. The set is simple, yet creative employment of set changes and movement, varying locations for sometimes-parallel actions by different individuals and groupings of performer,make the show more dynamic.

Witty comic relief lends balance and creates conversational and realistic rhythm that makes the story and characters real and believable. There is room for improvement in the actual portrayal of bipolar disorder and its treatment. We didn’t really get to see exactly how it was affecting Gulzar himself or what it takes to get better. The emphasis is on the people he loves and damages inadvertently. As a depiction of mental illness itself, Suno only scratches the surface. As a portrait of a family heaving under the pressure of mental illness Suno works admirably, delving to the depths of despair while also offering a vision of hope.