Catey Sullivan has been writing about Chicago theater for more than 25 years. She is a contributing writer at Crain's Chicago, Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She's been published in Playbill, Pioneer Press, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other outlets. She has an MFA from the University of Illinois.
Pictured: Ashley Neal. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Catey Sullivan
More than 900,000 women suffer from post-partum depression; or between 11 and 20 percent of women who give birth. Behind the statistics (from the Center for Disease Control and PostPartumProgressive.com) are deeply individual stories of chronic sorrow and pain, women whose disease attacks them mentally as well as physically, telling them they are not only sick but also utter failures.
Playwright William Francis Hoffman tells one such story in “Cal in Camo,” bringing the audience to a rural, hardscrabble corner of Illinois where a new mother is being both literarily and figuratively sucked into a black mire of a sinkhole.
Directed by Hallie Gordon, “Cal in Camo” is the start of something important, valuable and compelling. Hoffman’s script, however, is problematic. Despite passages of intense, evocative power, the character and plot development are weak. The four-person cast is sterling. But it’s in the service of a drama that never taps fully into the potential of the subject it tackles.
The wordless opening scene lays hits at its potential, laying bare the myth that once a woman is handed her newborn baby, she all but melts with maternal impulse and lovestruck wonder. Despite what movies like “Waitress” would have you believe, motherhood is not an inherently natural condition if you’re in possession of a pair of ovaries. When we first see Cal (Ashley Neal), she’s slumped grimly over a breast pump. The machine pulls relentlessly at her flesh to no avail. The milk isn’t coming. As the pump’s gears grind on, you can all but hear their grim refrain: Cal is a terrible mother. Cal is a terrible person.
Weary in the knowledge that the already stretched household budget is now going to have to accommodate a weekly supply of Similac, Cal wrenches the suction cup from her skin, throws it down and puts her head on the table.
Cal’s husband Tim (Eric Slater), meanwhile, is also having a hard time. His failure, however, is comparatively manageable: He’s failing at his job of selling artisanal beer, primarily because the local pubs of Sterling, Illinois have a clientele that drinks Schlitz or Bud or – if they’re feeling really adventurous – Coors. The nameless bar owner (Danny McCarthy) of one of Sterling’s watering holes can’t sell small batch citrus note brews to his working-class customers. While we never see McCarthy’s character again, the scene establishes Sterling’s quiet, down-on-its-heel desperation and the economic vise tightening around Cal and Tim.
When Cal’s newly widowed brother Flynt (Keith Kupferer) arrives for an extended stay, the pressure increases. Flynt’s wife drowned, a fate that circles all the characters in “Cal in Camo.” Flynt takes one look at the Bradford Pines and spongy ground surrounding Cal and Tim’s house and announces that they’ve bought a home perched on the edge of a huge sinkhole. When the rains come, the physical structure of their lives will collapse. When a doe becomes trapped belly-deep in the quicksand-like muck near the house, it’s a harbinger of what looms for Cal and Tim.
Hoffman’s use of drowning imagery, heavy rains and people struggling through the mire of their lives is not as heavy-handed as it might sound. The metaphors and parallels and foreshadowing are sometimes obvious, but they are also vivid and memorable. Cal, moreover, is a female character the likes of which is rarely seen onstage (or in film, for that matter) – a new woman who loathes motherhood and would like nothing more than to go back to her pre-child life.
Hoffman makes parenthood central to the regret and rage that washes through “Cal in Camo,” but he fills in the edges with a mocking inversion of the American dream. Here, the new home is a nightmare. The stay-at-home young mother is miserable. The briefcase-carrying, suit-and-tied husband is teetering forward financial insolvency. And the new uncle who comes to visit? He’s damaged, perhaps beyond repair. As you might expect, there’s a gun and a storm toward the culmination of the 90-minute piece. And there is a wordless, closing scene that is indelible and feral in its desperate power.
The biggest problem here is with the plot: Why anyone would knowingly, willingly buy a home on a sinkhole remains a mystery throughout. A genuinely suicidal person would find quicker, less logistically complex means of ending things. For all her struggles, there’s no reason to believe that Cal is uncaring enough to put the family’s financial survival – and its survival period – in total jeopardy. Cal is unhappy, but she’s not crazy or reckless.
The other problem with the script lies with the nameless owner. McCarthy gives a predictably effective performance – which is to say he’s memorable, easy to empathize with and someone you definitely want to know better. But Nameless Bar Owner vanishes after his one scene, never to be heard from again. Granted this isn’t his story. But bringing him in only as a means to set the scene feels like a contrivance.
Those two caveats aside, Gordon shapes an intriguing production with “Cal in Camo.” Her ensemble is excellent. As Cal, Neal is raw and fearless and makes your heart ache and rage for her. As Cal’s husband Tim, Slater is part Willy Loman, part Richard Roma. A city boy through and through, Cal’s move to small-town Sterling has turned him into a man whose default state is angry, sad and frustrated – all of which are compounded by the arrival of Flynt.
Kupferer makes Flynt a bit too enigmatic. He’s a broken man certainly, but his extreme terseness (with the exception of a monologue that’s absolutely cinematic) makes the root of that damage unclear. He almost seems autistic or mentally challenged at points – but for that beautiful, intricate monologue that’s effective but also out-of-character. Kupferer is one of those actors that could probably make a recitation of the tax code interesting, and his Flynt is no exception. Still, the character is underwritten – and a bit obviously named.
Joanna Iwanicka’s set is understated and effective. Cal and Tim’s “home” lacks any touch of hominess. Things are still piled in boxes. There are no pictures or knickknacks. Except for the kitchen area, it could be a storage unit.
Before you walk into the stage for “Cal in Camo,” you have to walk past a wall filled with onesies, many of them bearing witness penned in Sharpie to grim facts about postpartum depression. It’s a terrifically effective bit of dramaturgy. If only the story were fleshed out with equal impact. Hoffman is partially there. He needs to get rid of the sinkhole plot hole and dig a bit deeper.
CAL IN CAMO runs through Feb. 17. For more information visit rivendelltheatre.org.