Life and death issues in “Rest” by new MacArthur Fellow Samuel D. Hunter

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In Samuel D. Hunter’s play, “Rest,” Matt Farabee (from left), McKenzie Chinn, Mary Ann Thebus, Amanda Drinkall and Steve Key gather for dinner.

“REST”

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

± Through Oct. 12

± Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln

± Tickets: $20-$60

± Info: (773) 871-3000; http://www.victorygardens.org

± Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission

“Rest,” the wise, poignant, at times overly contrived play by Samuel D. Hunter now at Victory Gardens Theatre, is about the basics: Life and death, love and loneliness, faith and fear. It also happens to feature three of Chicago’s most enduring performers — Mary Ann Thebus, William J. Norris and Ernest Perry, Jr. — and their work here, which is nothing less than a master class in acting, should not be missed.

You also are advised to keep your eyes on the malfunctioning automatic doors that open (or fail to open) into the lobby of the small retirement home on the outskirts of the Idaho town where “Rest” is set. At time these doors are an object of comic relief, but they also suggest something ominous. Without question they seem to be operated by an unreliable higher power — one that might be beckoning some into the next world as a serious blizzard keeps others (the few remaining residents and skeleton staff) huddled inside beneath blankets. As it happens, the facility itself is at a definite end point — short on supplies and scheduled to be closed down within a few days. And those who must move on are in various states of emotional chaos.

For Etta (Thebus), a still vital and sharp-tongued woman, the issue is Gabe (Norris, whose has just a few brief scenes, but leaves an indelible imprint), her nonagenarian husband. Once a brainy musicologist, he is now in the extreme stages of Alzheimer’s, and an adjustment to any new environment will certainly be traumatic. Far more at peace is Etta’s friend, Tom (Perry, in a hilariously understated turn), the play’s most mellow character, who worked for decades as a night watchman at a factory, and now mostly watches TV and waits (a bit impatiently) for his meals.

The staff has big problems, too. Jeremy (Steve Key), the rather scatter-brained manager of the place, is a lost soul, recently divorced, and unsettled about a career or any other aspect of his future. For the two remaining aides, best friends Ginny (McKenzie Chinn) and Faye (Amanda Drinkall), the situation is even more complex. The unmarried (and soon to be jobless) Faye is pregnant — serving as surrogate mother for the married Ginny, who is unable to have children because of a bout with ovarian cancer — and neither woman is at peace about the decision they’ve made. Last but not least there is Ken (Matt Farabee, in a performance expertly filled with tragicomic panic). A troubled adolescent, full of fears (especially of death), he’s been taken under the wing of his pastor and sent, as a sort of therapy, to spend a few days filling in as the retirement home’s cook.

Yes, there is talk of euthanasia here. And yes, there is talk about religion, with an absolutely wonderful scene in which Key is pressed into saying a prayer before a haphazard dinner is served in the midst of the blizzard. There also is a beautiful understanding of married love, with the altogether uncanny Thebus, extraordinary throughout, making some of Hunter’s loveliest writing absolutely heart-wrenching.

Director Joanie Schultz (on a set by Chelsea M. Warren that looks like an exact replica of the lobby of the independent living building where my own 90-year-old mother lives) deftly orchestrates Hunter’s delicate balance of tragedy, comedy, hysteria and desperation, making it feel like a Beckett play that just happens to be full of real people — and that is a formidable compliment to all involved.

One final note: “Rest” arrived on the Victory Gardens stage just days after playwright Samuel D. Hunter was named one of the 2014 MacArthur “genius” Fellows.


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