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VISITING EDNA at Steppenwolf Theatre, Review – Never Ending Edna

By Justin LeClaire

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I have very mixed feeling about Steppenwolf’s newest play, Visiting Edna, a world premiere by the famed American playwright David Rabe (well known for his acclaimed Vietnam War plays such as Sticks and Stones and Streamers). Edna has been one of Chicago’s most hotly anticipated openings this fall… well, outside of Hamilton of course. The play is about grappling with impending death (specifically through cancer) and though it brings us close to people, it also leads to distance ourselves from them.

 

(left to right) Debra Monk (Edna) and ensemble member Ian Barford (Andrew)

 

Frankly it’s hard to love a show with such depressing subject matter. I appreciate Rabe’s concept and his intentions. Edna has the potential to be quite moving and powerful. However, instead of getting to the point, Rabe has his character’s lazily meander around it. I understand that Rabe wants to show us how families avoid painful topics by sidestepping past them. Nevertheless, that concept already comes out loud and clear in the first twenty minutes. After that it’s just dull and monotonous.

 

Visiting Edna clearly needs work. However, it’s still one of the better world premieres I’ve seen in Chicago in a while and it is fixable. Yes, it is excruciatingly long. Yes, there are moments that are corny and awkward. And yes, it feels like sitting through a Lifetime movie at times. But, unlike a majority of other new works I’ve seen, this one actually has a reason to exist and there’s a genuine sincerity behind it. That’s important and I believe this play has a lot of potential to be very powerful, heartbreaking, and even thought-provoking.  It just needs some major cleaning.

 

(back to front) Debra Monk (Edna) and ensemble member Ian Barford (Andrew)

 

Edna (Debra Monk) is an elderly woman who is fighting a losing battle with cancer. Her son, Andrew (Ian Barford), lives thousands of miles away with a family of his own, yet out of concern for her health he comes to visit for the week. Their relationship is cold and awkward at first. Although Andrew is there because of his mom’s illness (and looming death), they try to avoid the subject as much as possible. Andrew is also trying to breach a wide emotional distance with his mother that he later learns stemmed from a childhood incident with his parents.

 

This play also employs some unusual narrative devices by having a couple actors embody abstractions representing their fear and their distraction. One actor (Tim Hopper) portrays cancer. He calls Edna “My host” and goes about trying to challenge Edna and Andrew to confront the impending death. Another actress (Sally Murphy) depicts Television, the exact thing that often diffuses difficult and uncomfortable family situations and lets them escape from facing realities. Here Television reinforces Andrew and Edna’s distraction allowing them to avoid having to actually face the seriousness of Edna’s illness.

 

Debra Monk (Edna)

 

And then there was a bizarre and totally unnecessary, dream sequence in the middle of Act Two wherein another actor (played by the playwright’s son Michael Rabe) appears as “death” (dressed as a Texan Angel) to take Edna’s soul. She refuses to go so he starts whipping her and she agrees.

 

The scene was just painful to watch, not because Edna might be dying, but because the scene was so random, poorly constructed, and honestly Michael Rabe’s poor acting abilities left a lot to be desired. I’m guessing the scene wasn’t meant to be comical, but there were several audible chuckles in the house. The scene needs to be cut entirely. It’s so excessively melodramatic that it was embarrassing.

 

(left to right) Debra Monk (Edna) and ensemble member Tim Hopper (Actor Two)

 

Rabe (I’m back to referring to the playwright) stays true to his classic poetic writing style of giving his characters an abundance of monologues. Though, he may have gone overboard with them this time. This play is almost nothing but a bunch of long-winded monologues strewn together with only a few dialogue scenes in between to stitch them together.

 

A majority of the monologues seem to ramble all over the place making it hard to decipher what point they’re trying to make or what journey the character is going through. While this is true of real life it’s not necessarily entertaining.

 

Worse yet is that the monologues seemed to never end – I swear one monologue in Act Two lasted for over 20 minutes. It’d be fine if the monologues were at least interesting, but instead they’re like listening to a chatty old relative on the phone who will not stop talking. After a while you stop caring and start feeling irritated. A couple rows behind me a woman finally had enough with one monologue “When is she ever going to stop talking?” she murmured aloud, not even trying to hide it in a whisper.

 

(in the background) Debra Monk (Edna) with (left to right) ensemble member Ian Barford (Andrew) and ensemble member Sally Murphy (Actor One)

 

Clearly this play has some problems. So let’s focus on how to fix it.

 

First and foremost is length. Any play over an hour and half needs to be justified for its length otherwise it’s just wasting time. And I’m not convinced Visiting Edna, which ran an agonizing 2 hours and 30 minutes (not including intermission), deserves to be that long. In fact, it doesn’t even need two acts. The story can easily be told in less than 90 minutes. Many of the lengthy monologues can easily be trimmed down to their essential points. The asides to the audience by Andrew, both at the beginning and at the very end were cheesy and can be cut. And please God cut that horrible angel scene in Act Two.

 

(left to right) Ensemble member Ian Barford (Andrew) and ensemble member Sally Murphy (Actor One)

 

Another thing that could be cut, or just rewritten, are the aimless backstories revolving around some clichéd memories of events that happened about 40 years prior. I get the sense that these disclosures were Rabe’s way of explaining why Andrew and Edna are so cold and emotionally distant from each other at first. It also gives them a soft moment to bond together and finally connect emotionally. It just seemed so unnecessary. After all, most family reunions are already awkward, especially when you know one of them is slowly passing away.

 

It’d be better to just have the two of them find a connection over Edna’s illness by having Andrew finally come to terms with his mother’s death. That would be much more powerful than some haphazard backstory of Andrew being traumatized by a childhood experience witnessing people jump from a hotel fire and another where Edna expresses guilt about physically disciplining Andrew when he was a kid. Sorry, but these “revelations” are not shocking or plot twisting enough to be considered spoilers.

 

(left to right) Ensemble members Sally Murphy (Actor One) and Ian Barford (Andrew)

 

And, I can’t say with confidence that Rabe has found a way to make the personifications of Cancer and Television totally work. The overall concept is good in theory, but it feels muddled on stage as if their whole purpose hasn’t been fully thought-out. I get that they represent death and distraction. Outside of that I didn’t really see the point of having them. And the abstract moments where Andrew and Edna speak to them directly were just strange. Are they talking to themselves? Is it the voice in their heads? And if so why do Andrew and Edna look at the actors in the eye when they speak to them? The playwright needs to clear it up.

 

(left to right) Debra Monk (Edna) and ensemble member Sally Murphy (Actor One)

 

Rabe also needs to figure out how to end the play. There were at least three places where this play could’ve ended. Indeed, where it should’ve ended. Yet, each time the play just kept going – eliciting audible groans from those around me. It almost would be best to just leave the play as an open question at the end, letting us debate about what happens, instead of literally telling us how Edna dies.

 

(left to right) Debra Monk (Edna) and ensemble member Ian Barford (Andrew)

 

For Steppenwolf much of the acting felt on par with what you’d typically see at a local storefront theatre here. It was a mixed bag of some wonderful performances and some mediocre ones.

 

Debra Monk (who many will remember played the overbearing mother in Centerstage) is thankfully fantastic and totally relatable as Edna. While Ian Barford, as her son Andrew, could use a little work. Barford doesn’t have the connection with Ms. Monk to make us believe he could actually be her son. He also comes across too much as an actor, like someone who just stepped out of a sitcom on stage. More levels could help, as could some genuine emotions of guilt and pain. He seemed a little too flat for my liking.

 

(left to right) Debra Monk (Edna) and ensemble member Sally Murphy (Actor One)

 

Sally Murphy had the most energy on stage and she was a pure delight to watch. You just wish Rabe had a more clear and distinct purpose for her character overall.

 

The original actor cast to portray Cancer, K. Todd Freeman, was suddenly removed less than a week before opening press night with a strangely worded press release saying “the role wasn’t for him”. In hindsight it probably would’ve been best to keep him around. Freeman’s replacement Tim Hopper (an actor who is just about in every Steppenwolf production lately) looks lost on stage. He clearly needs more rehearsal time and his overall performance was so lifeless that it was like he reading lines off a cue-card.

 

(left to right) Debra Monk (Edna), ensemble member Ian Barford (Andrew) and ensemble member Sally Murphy (Actor One)

 

Visiting Edna is not an easy play to sit through. The subject matter alone is tough, but so is the extremely slow-moving pace of this piece. I’d blame my Millennial-generation attention span for feeling unnerved and bored by it, except, I also took note that the majority of theatregoers, of all ages, were either dozing off, yawning, struggling to stay awake, or looking downright impatient throughout this play on the performance I attended.

 

Complicating the play’s tired lagging pace was Anna Shapiro’s leisurely direction. It seems she tended to focused more on intimacy than urgency. While Marcus Doshi’s dark lighting and David Zinn’s vague design choices (which included some scenes with actual soft rain in the background) only seemed to induce more yawns and bouts of sleep. Adding to this the actors sounded a little hazy and inaudible so it was difficult to hear certain moments. Given all this it was no wonder the six people seated in the row directly in front of me were napping away throughout most of the play.

 

Ensemble member Sally Murphy (Actor One)

 

There are two lines in this play that pretty much summed up the production as it is now. The first was at the beginning of the play when Ms. Murphy described her character of Television as “a work in progress” – a very fitting description of this play. And the other was at the very end, maybe even one of the last lines of the play, when Edna says “Can I come up with something that can get your attention and keep it?” A question Rabe needs to mull over a bit more for this entire play.

 

Bottom Line: Visiting Edna is somewhat recommended. There is much to dislike about this play, from the unending length to the clichéd plot points. However, it’s not terrible, hopeless, or unwatchable (well, outside of that horrible “angel” scene in the Second Act). Visiting Edna is in its rough draft stage so, to be fair, the problems here are not unexpected. Nor are they unfixable. What gives this play hope, and why I still somewhat recommended it despite the flaws, is that realizing our own fading mortality is an extremely painful sensation that we all must come to terms with. There’s something very compelling hidden within this play and within that sentiment. I would encourage Rabe to cut the excess and keep digging for its core. With additional work I believe this play can be deeply effective, even poignant. But it’s not there yet.

 

VISITING EDNA – Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutesincluding intermission

LocationSteppenwolf (Downstairs Theatre), 1650 N Halsted St, Chicago IL 60614

The theatre is located about a block north of the North & Clybourn station on the CTA Red Line on Halsted Street.

Runs through: November 6, 2016

Curtain TimesTuesdays - Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and 7:30 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM.

There are additional performances on Sundays at 7:30 PM (October 2 through October 16) and Wednesdays at 2 PM (October 10 through November 2)

Performances for People with Disabilities: There are a few performances during the run that will contain an Audio Description, American Sign Language Interpretations, and Open Captioning. For more information please visit the Steppenwolf Accessibility Page for specific dates.

Tickets$20 - $89 and can be purchased online (see link above) or by calling the Steppenwolf Audience Services Box Office at 312-335-1650

Discounted Tickets: Ask Box Office about student tickets ($15), senior, 20 for $20, groups, and half-price rush discount tickets.

 

Written by David Rabe, Directed by Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro

The production team includes David Zinn (scenic design), Linda Roethke (costume design), Marcus Doshi (lighting design), Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (sound design and original music), Polly Hubbard (dramaturg), Gigi Buffington (company vocal coach), Penny Lane Studios (wig and hair design), Jonathan Berry (artistic producer), Tom Pearl (director of production). Additional credits include JC Clementz and Tam Dickson (casting) and Christine D. Freeburg (stage manager) and Brian Maschka (Assistant Stage Manager).

Cast includesDebra Monk (Edna), Ian Barford (Andrew), Sally Murphy (Actor One), Tim Hopper (Actor Two), Michael Rabe (Actor Three)

UnderstudiesDiane Dorsey (Edna), Ashlyn Hughes (Actor One), Jeremy Sonkin (Actor Two, Actor Three), Dan Stearns (Andrew)

Photo CreditsMichael Brosilow

 

Published on Oct 02, 2016

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