Theatre

David Rabe’s Visiting Edna is everything you expect from Steppenwolf Theatre: a work of depth and significance, actors rendering studied characters, and production values of the highest order. 

Rabe’s writing also displays another Steppenwolf hallmark: plays that mine the power and drama in the ordinary language of daily life. Edna (Debra Monk is sensational) is an Iowa widow soldiering through a litany of ills – heart failure, colostomy, colitis, diabetes and cancer – all conspiring to come in for the kill. Her middle-aged son Andrew (Ian Barford gives what will surely be a definitive performance) visits to check in on her, and decides to see if better medical advice might improve her condition. 

This may sound grim, or even boring. It is anything but. Though Edna babbles endlessly - as mothers may – her almost hypnotic patter is laced with incisive reflection and homespun wisdom, engaging her son (and the audience). She also begins settling accounts, handing off possessions and revealing scars from her own upbringing from which she sought to shield Andrew and his sister. Edna vividly relates the impact on her own childhood of the fraught circumstances of her older sisters’ teenage miscarriage and battle with tuberculosis. 

Edna’s end of life scenario affords moments of reflection, recall, and bonding with Andrew. Edna, born in 1926 to a world devoid of social media - or psychotherapy, for that matter - regrets in hindsight the physical discipline she inflicted on Andrew, and worries over her own careless decision to bring Andrew, age four at the time, to watch a hotel fire at which guests jumped to their deaths.  "It's just so different now, that's all," Edna says. 

The play also hums with a magical realism, as the dying Edna is pulled between two polarities familiar to anyone who has tread the path of serious illness: a distracting television, and the illness itself. In Visiting Edna, Actor One (Sally Murphy in a beautifully crafted and inspired performance) plays a channel-flipping Television, breaking the wall to address the audience in her opening monologue. She even relates the playwright's reflections on whether to wear rabbit ears or a dish antenna.)

Tim Hopper as Actor Two, plays Edna’s cancer through most of the play. (Note to Hopper fans: this is one his best roles.) Hopper’s knowing, insidious cancer recounts Edna's ailments, and telsl the audience, "Yet, she is desperate to live." Cancer offers gloomy reminders to Edna ("It's a dark hole you're in.") and competes mightily with Murphy’s sprightly Television for attention. In fact, neither wins it. As Actor Three (in a stunning walk-on role), Michael Rabe is at once frightening and believable as an angel of death. 

The stage itself is quite awesome: a sky tunnel right out of Magritte hovers above a split level living room. Stormy weather was so convincingly portrayed I was surprised the streets were dry when I left the theater. Kudos to David Zinn for set design, Marcus Doshi on lighting, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen for  music and sound design. Artistic director Anna Shapiro, famed for August: Osage County, oversaw the show and guides this season at Steppenwolf. 

This wonderful production has just one drawback: the ending, which seems to drag, as Andrew addresses the audience in a lengthy, tearful soliloquy about Edna’s final moments. 

That aside, Visiting Edna is as good as it gets on stage. It runs through November 6, 2016 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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