Chicago Theatre Review
Visiting Edna – Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Family is everything. It’s that fuzzy, warm force that shapes and molds each of us. It’s the place you go when no one else will take you in. It’s where the heart is and where your mom awaits for your arrival with a warm hug and a pie in the oven. Well, sometimes…
In David Rabe’s latest drama, now enjoying a world premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre (much like the Gift Theatre’s premiere of “Good For Otto,” not too long ago), he once again explores brand new territory. Gone are the days when Rabe is focused upon writing about shellshocked soldiers, drug-addicted Hollywood players and naive young women struggling to survive in a cruel world. In this new play, the Drama Desk and Tony Award-winning playwright focuses on home and family.
It’s the story of Edna, the mother of grown children who’ve left the nest and, like many adult kids, live a great distance from where they grew up. Andrew, Edna’s beloved married son, and a father of his own children, has returned home for an extended visit with his mother. Although Edna claims she feels fine and seems as energetic and spunky as ever, she has an incurable strain of cancer and must wear a colostomy bag, with all its inconveniences. However, Edna rejoices at the arrival of her son and anticipates a nice, long visit. Although she encourages him to go out and visit some of his old childhood friends who are still living in the small Iowa town, Edna regrets the short time Andrew spends away from her apartment. She’s jealous of the precious time others are spending with her boy, especially when she realizes that her time is limited.
Edna, who revels in recounting detailed happy moments from the past, suddenly finds hope in Andrew’s announcement that they have an appointment with a new doctor and are going on a road trip to a cancer center, for a second opinion. The other characters who pop in and out of this basically two-hander are Cancer, as solemnly portrayed by company member Tim Hopper, and the Television, played with zesty earnestness by Steppenwolf ensemble member Sally Murphy. Their intrusion serves to break the tension and offer some thought-provoking insights or comic relief. But, by and large, they really could be eliminated and this play would be a more concise, tighter, two-character play.
Making her Steppenwolf debut, Edna is played by respected Broadway, film and TV actress Debra Monk. Although she’s younger than the character she’s playing, thanks to a combination of the actress’ superb acting ability, along with the costuming talents of Linda Roethke and appropriate wig designs by the Penny Lane Studios, Ms. Monk transforms into the much older Edna. In addition, she’s got the woman’s energy, speech pattern and dauntless drive down to a science. Edna is the epitome of everyone’s loving mother, grandma or favorite aunt. Every little movement, each gesture and physical quirk bespeaks a much older, warm-hearted and zealous woman who understands that her time on earth is coming to an end and it’s all about family. This is a beautiful performance.
Andrew is masterfully played by talented ensemble member Ian Barford. With a gentle natural quality and a caring sensitivity, Mr. Barford portrays a soft-spoken, easygoing family man who respects his mother and wants only the best for her. Yet there are times when his character becomes remote, even more reticent, retreating into the world of his memories with an air of detachment. In the last moments of his visit, as the taxi is outside blowing its horn, Andrew learns far more about his mother and late father’s relationship than he ever knew before. He also discovers some unspoken information about a tragic local hotel fire, as well as several other events that shaped his young life. Barford’s final monologue is delivered directly to the audience with such poignance and honesty it’s impossible to imagine any theatergoer not being profoundly moved.
Talented director and Tony winner for “August: Osage County,” Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro has sensitively led her cast through this slice-of-life story, focusing on all those small, quiet moments that make living such an adventure. David Zinn’s authentic-looking apartment from the 1990’s, although it could easily be half the size, is bedecked with heavy maple end tables, matching recliner chairs and a vintage kitchen table from earlier days. The rooms are festooned with the kind of keepsakes that we all recognize from our childhood homes. Marcus Doshi’s excellent lighting design, in tandem with Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sensational, authentic sound track, makes the thunderstorms look and sound totally realistic.
While David Rabe’s latest play explores the love and complicated relationship between a parent and her grown child, it also deals with loneliness, health issues and death. It faces each of these elements of life with unabashed, unflinching honesty. Sentimentality is absent from this drama and the real world starkly lies before each theatergoer. A bit too long and a little absurd, with actors portraying nonhuman characters, this world premiere offers an evening of heartfelt understanding, all centered around a beautiful woman with whom a long visit is its own reward.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 15-November 6 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in their downstairs theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling them at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by going to www.theatreinchicago.com.