During the 1970s, David Rabe was renowned for penning a trilogy of plays about the painful legacy of the Vietnam War (“The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,” “Sticks and Bones” and “Streamers”), and later captured some of the loneliness and decadence of the 1960s and 1980s with “In the Boom Boom Room” and “Hurlyburly.”
‘VISITING EDNA’ Recommended When: Through Nov. 6 Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Tickets: $20 – $89 Info: www.steppenwolf.org Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Earlier this year, in “Good for Otto” — which received a riveting world premiere by The Gift Theatre — Rabe dove into the world of mental illness with honesty, bravery and surprising flashes of humor. Now, in “Visiting Edna,” another world premiere — produced by Steppenwolf Theatre — he confronts an equally fraught and difficult subject: The interaction between an aging parent facing increasingly serious health issues, and her grown children who live thousands of miles away geographically, and, even more crucially, seem to be at an even greater distance emotionally.
Clearly, Rabe is not a man capable of sidestepping the most painful, intimate and, yes, depressing issues. Nor is he one to supply false hope or sentimentality. He holds the mirror up to human nature, and the reflected image is troubling and all too real.
The play is set in the 1990s, in a Midwestern town where Edna (Debra Monk), 78, lives by herself in an ordinary apartment whose living room has two recliners — one a reminder of the husband who died years earlier. Though still clear-minded and mobile, Edna is in poor health, suffering from heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, and dependent on a colostomy bag that has caused her considerable embarrassment. Now she has been diagnosed with cancer, and her doctor, for whom she does not have the highest regard, has pretty much given up on further treatment. Yet the survival instinct in Edna remains strong.
Edna’s children live on the East coast and have busy lives and families of their own. Her daughter, Jenny, calls from time to time, and the distance between the two is palpable. Andrew (Ian Barford), actually visits, although his inability to fully engage with his mother is clear from the moment he arrives and periodically practices his golf moves with his mother’s cane, downs a fair amount of alcohol, and finds any excuse to escape the apartment, whether for groceries or meetings with old acquaintances.
Andrew cares about his mother, but he is restless and impatient and unable to talk to her about her real feelings and concerns. The one thing he does manage to do is arrange an appointment with a specialist in a larger city that requires a long drive — a day trip that fills Edna with immense joy and, as it turns out, misplaced optimism. For Edna, this daylong connection with her son is the source of elation. For Andrew it is beyond exhausting. He cannot wait to fly home — angry, and perhaps somewhat hurt that his mother no longer wants the family photo albums and videotapes (or, more to the point, wants him to want them).
All this is the naturalistic part of the drama. And Monk (who suggests her character’s restraint, worry, yearning, sadness and determination with the most economical means), and Barford (who can say as much with an expression of weariness as with words) capture the tension and void between this mother and son who are unable to express the only thing that matters — love.
But there is more. As Rabe lets us know from the very first moment in “Visiting Edna,” there are an odd pair of “ghosts” in the room along with Edna and Andrew. Actor One (Sally Murphy in a delicious turn that provides much-needed comic relief), speaks directly to the audience and tells us that she is an actor portraying a television. Donning rabbit-ear antennae, Murphy expertly “surfs” the full array of cable channels and tries to seduce Andrew into watching everything from movies, to sitcom reruns and porn as a distraction and sedative. Actor Two (Tim Hopper) is far more malignant. He plays cancer — the ever-replicating cell who exists in a hideous relationship with Edna’s organs. And Hopper brings his character to life in an eerily calm, straightforward, almost cavalier manner.
“Visiting Edna,” directed by Anna D. Shapiro (who needs to pay more attention to audibility) would benefit from some serious editing. And the last-minute arrival of a viciously cruel, black-winged Angel of Death (Michael Rabe) who literally beats the life force out of Edna, is theatrical overkill. That said, the play will no doubt hit far too close to home for many in the audience, but to its credit, it cannot be easily shaken off.