There’s no nice way to say this, so I’ll do it plainly without the contrived effort at sugarcoating. “Visiting Edna,” the world premiere, debut offering of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s 41st season, is a bloated, confusing mess. It’s a disappointment on many levels.
In the first place, Steppenwolf is world-renowned for its general quality. Any bombs, while occasionally inevitable, are nonetheless a reputational letdown for theatergoers. Further, playwright David Rabe and Tony Award-winning Director Anna D. Shapiro have earned stellar reputations for their career work. It’s, therefore, natural to expect repeat genius. Audience members will not find it here.
Press materials offer the following plot summary:
“Edna has suffered a number of losses as she has aged, and now faces the stealthy advance of cancer embodied by an intimate figure she could do without. Home for a visit, Edna’s son Andrew tries to bridge the gulf between the childhood love they shared and the aggressively polite but baffling relationship they now live with.”
As this public relations excerpt suggests, Cancer (Capital “C”) actually appears onstage as an embodied human presence. Tim Hopper, the talented Steppenwolf Ensemble Member who inhabits the role, does his level best. But as written by Rabe, Cancer is, well…. totally boring. Insecure and semi-hysterical at certain intervals, dry and sleepy at others, the character does not possess the magnetism and sense of danger that ought to be endemic to such a force of human suffering.
Incidentally, Rabe names Cancer “Actor Two” and the choice grows more mystifying with the production’s opening scene. Along with “Actor One,” who’s actually an anthropomorphized TV set played by Sally Murphy, all mystique is immediately shed through confessional monologues from the two characters. If you’re going to devote minutes of dialog to unnecessary explanation (there’s nothing subtle about either of these portraits), why not just call them what they are in print? It’s not enticing. It’s annoying.
So many, many questions. And not the kind that invite exciting, intense debate between theater companions. Why is this production nearly three hours long with four different endings, where smart editing and well-chosen brevity would bring the messages into clearer focus? By contrast, I just saw “Wonderful Town” at the Goodman, a work of near-equal length that feels like moments. The scripts are different animals certainly, but watching someone die in slow motion doesn’t also have to be torture for the audience. Think “Marvin’s Room.”
Why is Andrew (Jeff-nominated Ian Barford) so touchy and insufferable? It’s hard losing a parent, and we’re told he endured some abuse from a long-dead father, but Rabe would have us mistake the character’s taciturn, ungenerous stubbornness for mystique. It doesn’t fly.
Debra Monk as the titular Edna turns in the cast’s best work. By no coincidence, the actress is also given the richest material to mold. Edna — lonely, in pain and one of the last survivors of her small-town Iowa peer group — is feistily determined to find a way to live and connect with those she loves in her remaining time. One aches for her palpable yearning to reach her son, to seize what might be the last I-Thou moment opportunity they have. She wants deep conversation; she wants adventure and truth. Instead, she is treated to deflection and impatience. It’s the script’s real tragedy.
Murphy, as the boob tube, also does some good comedic work. Hearing her breathe life into 1990s era “TV Guide” listings is nostalgic fun. But why is the play set during that period? I don’t know and should you purchase a ticket to this confused jumble, you may also be left with more questions than answers.
“Visiting Edna” is Rabe’s 18th play. I’m not sure how much rush there was, in the end, to bring it to the stage, but a feeling of forced commitment is there. This is definitely one to skip.
“Visiting Edna” runs through Nov. 6 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website