Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel's reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
(l-r) Debra Monk (Edna), Ian Barford (Andrew) and Sally Murphy (Actor One). Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Review: VISITING EDNA at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
By Rachel Weinberg
Helmed by Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro as she launches her first curated season, David Rabe’s world premiere play VISITING EDNA gives audiences a nearly three-hour exploration of the relationship between the elderly Edna (Debra Monk), who has terminal cancer, and her middle-aged son Andrew (Ian Barford). And while Rabe clearly wants audiences to grapple with mortality and the joys and challenges of family relationships, the characters—and therefore the play—so often shy away from these issues that are meant to form the heart of VISITING EDNA. Certainly, it is understandable that Edna and Andrew are reluctant to acknowledge Edna’s illness and are also hesitant to dive into some of the thornier parts of their past as mother and son. But despite lovely, honed performances from both Monk and Barford (who does consistently excellent work in everything in which I’ve seen him previously), VISITING EDNA spends so much time in these moments of distraction as to become tiresome.
And while the conversations between Edna and Andrew are heavily grounded in realism, the other three actors occupy an experimental realm. Sally Murphy charmingly begins the play in the role of Actor One, who portrays the television in Edna’s apartment. Murphy adds a much-needed sense of liveliness, and her performance underscores both television’s role as escapist entertainment but also as an avenue that can generate nostalgia and painful memories (when Murphy as Television asks if Edna wants to watch “Golden Girls,” she quickly dismisses the idea as it reminds her too much of her late friend Tessa). On the gloomier end of the spectrum, Tim Hopper personifies Edna’s Cancer, haunting her as the play progresses. But where Murphy’s performance is lively and energized, Hopper’s feels flat—though this may be because he was a late addition to the cast and has had less time to rehearse. Michael Rabe makes a nice late appearance as Actor Three, in a role that I won’t spoil here.
Despite strong performances overall, I failed to emotionally connect with VISITING EDNA. Barford does give a stunning monologue toward the end of the play, however, that I found incredibly moving—as much because of the writing as because of his beautiful performance. Overall the play’s tone feels uneven in the contrast connecting the realistic moments between Edna and Andrew, and the decidedly unrealistic roles for Actors One, Two, and Three. Still, VISITING EDNA does have its charms. David Zinn’s detailed set—replete with an intriguing sky above and the incorporation of real rain—provides a nice backdrop.Barford and Monk maintain a nice rapport throughout the play as they delve deeper and deeper into their relationship, with engaging interludes from Murphy. But VISITING EDNA ultimately feels too long-winded and uneven to fully capture my attention.