“Visiting Edna,” David Rabe’s world premiere play at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago is about “familial love (that) is not simply demanding in what it asks but challenging in what it gives.” The play is complicated by the discovery of how a son feels about his father, and about how a mother feels about her son. Edna, the mother, is dying, and the play concludes accordingly.
This is Mr. Rabe’s 18th play and when I found that out I was flummoxed to the point of incredulity. Really? Eighteenth? Anna D. Shapiro, the Artistic Director of Steppenwolf and director of this play, praises Mr. Rabe’s work as one that demonstrates “inevitable heartbreak and loss.” And that he does this, “with such unmatched skill of craft and such affection for his audience’s failings is nothing short of miraculous.”
True, Ms. Shapiro’s knowledge is obviously greater than mine when it comes to analyzing and critiquing plays, but I have to disagree with her on many of her accolades and quell such high praise for the play just seen. I think it was “miraculous” that I stayed for the whole thing.
Here I am sitting in the audience and I cannot connect with the characters at all. Even considering the fact that the characters and I are deeply enmeshed in similar experiences that have engulfed my life over the past 30+ years as my mother’s care-taker.
I made every attempt that I could to surgically delve into the psyches of each character: Cancer, the TV, the Angel, Edna, and her son, Andrew, and try to figure out what was it that was lost. And what I discovered, which may be a major hurdle for this director in the long run, is that the actors themselves lacked emotion. They seemed antiseptic and just short of wearing body suits so they wouldn’t become soiled with the dampness of emotional perspiration.
Imagine two bars of metal that are magnetized with positive and negative charges. Now try pushing together the two bars positive to positive. The metal bars repel each other. Drawing close to each other can’t happen. There is a resistance that cannot be avoided due to the physical nature of the charges. And this went on throughout the play until the bitter end which was in fact unsatisfying providing Mr. Rabe was trying to elucidate the softly shattered lives of disparate familial personalities and failings.
Now, to be fair, I have not seen or remember seeing any of the other plays that have been written by Mr. Rabe. And I can’t blame the director, though in this case, it is her job to interpret the author’s intentions. Somehow, I don’t think tedium was on his mind.
But that’s where the disconnect occurred for me and my mind tended to gravitate toward cigars. I couldn’t help but envision a cornucopia of smoking stogies running through my head as I sat there trying to figure out why this play isn’t gripping me with relatable, raw reactions.
When the character who plays the TV walks on stage and begins to explain her role, I thought, hmm, maybe this will be like a twisted “August: Osage County” written by and starring Tracy Letts. That blockbuster went from Chicago to Broadway to the silver screen and still makes tongues wag. Instead I thought of The Patio Cigar Lounge (Open 24/7).
Then character two strides on stage who plays the part of Cancer. His brief self-introduction was what took me into the lounge chair with my unlit cigar. No in fact, it was lit. And this was only the beginning of the play.
As the other characters were introduced, I was certainly paying attention but I wasn’t being drawn into the play, as I was with say, Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” or Samuel Beckett’s, “Waiting for Godot.” Now true, these comparisons of the latter two are not exactly a Letts’-styled play, but I was mesmerized when watching “The Time of Your Life” by William Saroyan (which is), and the depth of emotion that Patti Lupone brought to the part of Kitty Duval in the 1976 adaptation.
No, all I could do was think of smoking that cigar. In fact, I had a K cigar by Karen Berger with me, right in my shirt pocket. But I knew that the audience would be horror stricken upon my lighting it up (plus it’s against the law). Though it would have probably allowed me to pay more attention to the play or at least not be so critical.
It seemed to go on forever. Maybe a cigar would have led me to believe it was a shorter play. But it wasn’t. It was two hours long with one 15-minute break. And I did think about going outside to light up, but then I knew what would have happened, I would have missed the second half. Priorities are priorities and you all know about how I deal with them.
The stage design was magnificent, the lighting flawless, the sound effects right on time adding to the ambience of the play’s goal. But unfortunately, just like a bad cigar is distracting, the writing also seemed to be emotionless. It wasn’t what I expected, considering the number of plays Mr. Rabe has under his playwright’s belt.
Of course I stayed for the entire production. But the thought of making it through to the end were continuously interrupted with the desire for having a cigar. And perhaps rightfully so. Remember I’ve been off cigars for a week due to the doctor’s orders after the tooth extraction. So maybe this was just a weak moment – bad timing, and not the play at all.
But I don’t think so, I left the premier with this feeling of emptiness and abject depression that would not go away. Nor would the incessant yearning (craving?) for the cigar.
You know I thought it odd that the management allows people to bring alcoholic beverages into the theater, but the very mention of a cigar would have caused pandemonium – or would it? Do you think that maybe one of the other patrons thought as I had been thinking, and had a penchant for a cigar? It is possible. Maybe even probable. But that didn’t happen, ergo we will have to wait for Mr. Rabe’s 19th contribution to the theater and see if he can pull me into the drama, rather than allow me to vicariously sit in the Patio Cigar Lounge (Open 24/7) contemplating a cigar.