Actress juggles depression, Lincoln and love in new show

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Sara Felder is an upbeat, glass-half-full sort of person. That may explain why her new one-woman show, “Melancholy, A Comedy,” proved so challenging to create. It’s about people for whom the glass is drained nearly to empty.

A darkly comic, at times fanciful, look at mental illness, the play tells two parallel tales: one of Felder’s fictionalized relationship with a woman suffering from bipolar disorder; the other of America’s most august victim of the blues, Abraham Lincoln.

“Lincoln is one of the most famous icons in the history of the world,” Felder says of the 16th president, who was prone to periods of crippling depression throughout his life. “If he suffered like that, it’s a story to be told.”

“Melancholy, a Comedy” runs through June 28 at the Marsh in San Francisco.

Sara Felder photo/irene young

The play was made possible in part by a grant from the Creative Work Fund, a program of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund that seeks to “foster partnerships between artists and nonprofit organizations to create new work and engage the public in new ways.” The commission was awarded in partnership with the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, which over the years has helped countless sufferers of mental illness and their caregivers.

Rabbi Eric Weiss of the Healing Center will take part in an audience talkback on “Spirituality and Mental Health” following the 7 p.m. performance on Sunday, May 17.

In the play, Felder’s character, Sara, befriends Anna, a depressed woman loosely based on several people from Felder’s past. Anna suggests Sara research Lincoln as a topic for a master’s thesis. As her focus, Sara explores the president’s depression, which bordered on suicidal in his youth.

The play reveals that in Lincoln’s day, melancholia was attributed to an excess of black bile, one of the so-called humors that dominated medicine for centuries.

Along the way, Anna’s depression grows so deep she enters the hospital. It’s all too much for Sara to juggle, which explains why Felder, a master juggler, intersperses scenes with juggling and clowning.

“I thought the clown would be appropriate in talking about mental illness,” Felder says, “because [clowns] live in a slightly different universe, with different rules and different solutions to problems.”

As with her previous plays, Felder’s Jewish roots filter in. The soundtrack includes klezmer music throughout, and the script reveals new tidbits about the all-time most-researched president.

“Being Jewish is who I am,” says Felder, of Oakland. “It’s part of how I see the world and how I create art.”

Though the play premiered May 9, its genesis began years ago. Felder’s late friend, the professional clown and theater director Paoli Lacy, suffered from bipolar disorder. The two friends explored ways to turn pain into art, and before she died Lacy told Felder, “If you ever put this on the stage, promise you’ll try to make it funny.”

The idea for the show came into focus after Felder caught an NPR interview with Joshua Shenk, author of “Lincoln’s Melancholy,” a 2005 accounting of the president’s struggles with mental illness.

Like Weiss, Shenk will be a featured guest at the show. He will give a pre-show lecture at 4 p.m. May 31. His topic: “Lincoln’s Blues and That Fatal First of January 1841.”

Weiss, executive director of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, is gratified to have partnered with Felder. He says that he referred center clients to Felder as she crafted the play. “We consulted with Sara in her creative process and arranged for access among our clients to engage with her about their personal stories of mental illness and spiritual support.”

He also applauds Felder for broaching the subject of mental illness.

“Her artistry is beautiful,” Weiss adds. “Juxtaposing a personal narrative and historical narrative makes talking about this issue accessible.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy for Felder.

“One problem I had writing it was that it was really depressing,” Felder says. “You spend a lot of time alone. It was hard entering those worlds.”

“Melancholy, a Comedy,” through June 28 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F. (415) 282-3055 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.