Void of Cliché, Steppenolf's Production of Visiting Edna is a Moving and Insightful Achievement

THEATER REVIEW: By Daniel A. Scurek

(Left to right) Debra Monk (Edna) and ensemble member Ian Barford (Andrew) in Steppenwolf’s world premiere production of Visiting Edna by David Rabe, directed by Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro (photo by Michael Brosilow.)

October 18, 2016 - In the press release for the new Steppenwolf production, Visiting Edna, director Anna Shapiro describes playwright David Rabe as “a lion of the American theatre.” And although she does not elaborate on the term, her meaning is clear. From the early-1970s through the mid-1980s, Rabe wrote some of the most defining plays of that period. One of the first dramatists to analyze the Vietnam War onstage, works like, Sticks and Bones (Tony Award, 1972), The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Streamers still illuminate this very dark time. A veteran of that war, Rabe’s influence extends beyond that era; 1985’s Hurlyburly still holds up as one of the smartest and most disturbing plays about Hollywood.

Older now, Rabe’s work has grown more contemplative. Nothing wrong with that; many great playwrights created some of their most defining works in their twilight years. The typical outlet for reflection is the prose autobiography, but for dramatists, we get either painfully personal snapshots of unreconciled events (Tennessee Williams’ Outcry or Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night) or a ponderous analysis of elderly life, which is what we see in Visiting Edna.

The basic story is familiar: a dutiful, neurotic, middle-aged son from the city visits his dying mother in the boonies. Both mom and son understand that this is just a temporary visit, but we know the set-up: the relationship is strained from unresolved issues and the ultimate question is how far the child goes in pursuing closure; or does a good son simply leave the past in the past?

Steppenwolf ensemble member Ian Barford, gives as excellent turn as Edna’s son, Andrew. He delivers the kind of awkwardness we’d expect from a son who feels bad about not really knowing what his role of care-giver means. Luckily, Barford leaves the clichés at the door. He might easily get by on a lot of “oh, mom” eye-rolling, but instead embraces the awkward moments, helping us see the sincere son Rabe intends us to see. He doesn’t really want to be there, of course, but feels he should. And after a while, he doesn’t mind that much after all.

​A veteran of the New York stage, Tony and Emmy Award winning actress Debra Monk makes her Steppenwolf debut as a poignant and often funny Edna, who, naturally, doesn’t understand the modern world that much (although, for this play, the modern world is actually some point in the mid-1990s). She seems more comfortable with her impending death than her son. She, too, avoids cliché and delivers a performance so simple and straightforward you begin to fall for the entire package of cozy rural life.

​​It helps that there’s a television in the house; actually, the television is another character in the play. In fact, three of the five characters in this play are mythological embodiments of things not normally given a voice: the aforementioned television (Actor One played by Sally Murphy), cancer (Actor Two, played by Tim Hopper) and the angel of death (Actor Three played by the playwright’s son, Michael Rabe). Murphy’s television character works the best, as she continually tries to (and usually does) get all the attention. One caveat: her apology to the audience at the start of the show is unnecessary for us; we know television is a guilty pleasure. But it is also a comfort and a bonding tool in our lives, which is well shown in this production.

The script itself is often extraordinarily moving; Edna does not force her truths, she simply lets them roll off her tongue with many touching insights. It can get a bit laborious for some, as the script might benefit from pruning. There were times that I wanted to applaud director Anna Shapiro’s decision to allow Edna to quietly ramble without a lot of extraneous stage movement--something that in other hands might grow tedious.

Yet the show is filled with enough genuine golden insights that the production works masterfully. It says something that David Rabe, who could easily have launched this play in New York City, chose to work in Chicago with Steppenwolf (Rabe also debuted Hurlyburly in Chicago in 1984 at the Goodman Theatre). Here’s hoping that this promising work develops into another defining piece of this American lion’s catalogue.

Visiting Edna runs at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre through November 6, 2016.