Chicago Theatre Review
The Choices We Make
The My Way Residential – Irish Theatre of Chicago
A young woman enters a bedroom, perhaps in a hotel, carrying some bags and checking the place for tidiness. She places some things in the bureau drawer, arranges a few framed photographs on the dresser and waits. This is Catherine and she’s awaiting the arrival of her feisty, elderly Irish mother. Soon Willa is ushered into the room and we learn that this proud, cantankerous woman is about to be dumped into a London senior care facility by her daughter. From this moment on, Geraldine Aron’s 85-minute one-act reveals a drama, peppered with its share of comic moments, about the choices we make in life.
Catherine, we eventually learn, is a bored housewife whose children have left the nest. Since she’s been having an affair with younger men, it’s more convenient for her assignations to sequester her mother in an assisted living home. This provides Catherine the perfect excuse for daily leaving her home under the ruse that she’s visiting Willa. Eventually Jack, her cuckolded husband, figures out what’s been going on and he throws Catherine out.
Meanwhile, Willa continues railing against being forced to live at the My Way Residential home. She’s especially hurt when no one comes to visit her, even on her birthday. She refuses to leave her room to socialize with the other residents and she fights with everyone working there, particularly the director, Sister Chang. The two-faced head of the facility rules with an iron hand, while secretly pilfering candy and clothing from her residents’ rooms. However, Willa gradually begins to lower her guard and find enjoyment in the company of Byron, one of the other employees. He’s a young, illegal African immigrant working at the residence home, who eventually becomes Willa’s best friend. They begin by sharing family stories, segueing to deep secrets and finally they learn to truly trust and care about each other. In this way, Willa and Byron become a family, of their own choosing.
Prolific, Irish-born playwright, Geraldine Aron, best known for her one-woman drama, “My Brilliant Divorce,” is premiering this new work in Chicago. Inspired by actual events, Aron’s play is strongest when it focuses on the growing relationship between Willa and Byron. Her subplot about Catherine’s lackluster marriage and dalliance with an unseen, younger man becomes distracting. Catherine and her husband are such two-dimensional characters that the story weakens when our attention is torn from Willa’s story to the melodramatics of her daughter’s unsavory life. Had this drama focused more on this delightfully spunky, independent Irish woman, and how she learns to overlook her prejudices and see people for whom they really are, we would have a better play.
Talented director Kevin Theis makes the most of this new script. He’s guided this talented cast with all his skill and humanity, encouraging them to bring their characters to life with honesty. While actors Carolyn Kruse and Jeff Christian do everything they can to make Catherine and Jack feel real, their characters are just so flatly written that it’s nearly impossible. Christine Bunuan, who has delighted Chicago audiences in her own one-woman show, as well as at Chicago Children’s Theatre and Writers Theatre, rises above the two-dimensional writing to make villainous Sister Chang a character with some degree of depth.
But it’s the always brilliant Belinda Bremner, as Willa, and relative newcomer Terry Bell, as Byron, who make this play sing. It’s their play, their story, and we care about them from the beginning. Not only are their characters the heart of this story and the centerpieces of this drama, but both actors are sensational playing them. Individually each actor brings to the stage a special empathy and sincerity in his or her portrayal. Collectively, however, their talents soar when playing off each other. As unlikely and mismatched as this couple appears, these two human beings draw needed strength and compassion from each other, allowing them to cope a callous world. It’s a pleasure to watch this relationship bloom and grow before our eyes.
This world premiere has much to offer audiences looking for a sweet story that explores the human condition. While Geraldine Aron’s cast of characters is comprised of several frustrating two-dimensional characters, the strength of the piece is the endearing relationship that forms between a pair unlikely soulmates. True, Willa and Byron are from two different generations, and they hail from very unique, separate worlds. But through similar life experiences, an abundance of caring and a shared empathy for each other, they choose to become united as one.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 17-June by the Irish Theatre of Chicago at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office or by going to www.irishtheatreofchicago.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.