By William Donnelly
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Produced by Route 66 Theatre Company
Playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center
An Actor’s Dramedy about Lost Love and a Dead Kid
The contemporary naturalistic drama is in some ways a rather cynical form of art. The people who are telling a story will look at a situation such as the funeral of a suicide victim and ask “what’s my motive?” “Which tactics do I use to achieve it?” When the characters being approached in this manner by their creators are the parents of the deceased, as in William Donnelly’s No Wake, the result can be either refreshing or jarring, depending on why you would want to see a play about this situation in the first place. But Donnelly’s script is certainly rich material for actors, and local directing powerhouse Kimberly Senior has recruited three of Chicago’s finest for this darkly comedic drama about a love triangle in the most awkward and delicate of circumstances.
“You can’t blame yourself. I mean, you can, but what’s to be gained? No point beating yourself up.” These are the first words we hear at the play’s beginning, and they are delivered by Roger Padgett (Raymond Fox) to his wife’s first husband, the father of the late Sukey. They are true, obvious, and totally unhelpful, and therefore, an excellent summary of ex-couple Edward and Rebecca’s grieving process. So when Roger launches into a drunken, meandering monologue about torturing frogs as a child and the scarring impact of Christian eschatology, Edward (Stef Tovar) simply lets him ramble until he exhausts himself. Why pick a fight with his wife’s new partner? He’s already fighting with his own, whom he did not invite to the wake-less memorial. When Rebecca (Lia Mortensen) shows up, she has no trouble getting along with either man, and is soon bantering with them both.
It’s not that Sukey’s death doesn’t hurt. Edward and Rebecca are both quite upset. Just not excessively so. From their descriptions of her, Sukey sounds bi-polar or like she had borderline personality disorder. Edward admits fairly quickly to Rebecca that after all of Sukey’s flakiness, betrayals, unfair (from his perspective) accusations, and unfocused rage, he had just about had enough of her. Rebecca sympathizes. We mustn’t blame the victim, she says sarcastically. It’s a relief for the two of them to confirm that they are feeling the same way. And despite having outwardly moved on from each other, they still feel a strong attraction. They’re mature enough people to know they shouldn’t act on it, but since they’re the only ones who feel that they understand each other, and Roger’s passed out after making a buffoon of himself, they wind up sleeping together. Which doesn’t make things any less awkward.
No Wake doesn’t have much of a plot, but it is an intense study of relationships. The three characters are all very smart and socially aware (if not concerned), and Edward and Rebecca have had conversations and fights about every issue that comes up, many times. They know exactly what people are supposed to do and say about mental illness, grief, etc., and can imply the ends of lines of thought just by beginning them. They’ve probably seen Rabbit Hole. Self-awareness isn’t the most conducive state for recovery, but it does facilitate humor, and all three actors are masters at balancing suffering with levity. In any case, the sexual indiscretion soon gives them something else to focus on, with Sukey’s suicide and consequent ceding of the narrative of her life becoming just a twisted part of the background. Self-effacing in the extreme and used to being cuckolded, Roger still feels affronted on his own behalf just enough to lash out, but there’s something obligatory about that, too.
The fight between Roger and Edward is the one moment when Senior’s production goes too far into parody, but with so much self-awareness, Donnelly’s script is always right on the edge. The difficulty of determining the right tone is reflected in Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting designs, which, with their dark shades of blue and grey, create interesting and evocative visuals, while bordering between literal representation and abstraction. Roger’s job is to oversee pharmaceutical tests. Edward asks if that makes him a therapist. They don’t need to say it explicitly, but the idea is clear: when every negative personality trait is a medical condition, does that mean we’re absolved of everything, or of nothing? Or does it depend on whether you’ve gotten a formal diagnoses? It’s an unpleasant question, and I’m not sure if drama was really a better way of probing it than through prose. But as long as No Wake is a play, with all the requisite logical breakdown of characters and units of action, Route 66’s production is an opportunity to see some of Chicago’s best actors doing their finest work. Actually, the brutal dissection of emotions typically treated with extreme sensitivity might be the point, after all.
Reviewed January 10, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see No Wake’s page on Theatre in Chicago
Playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $35 with discounts for students or groups. To order, call 773-404-7336 or visit greenhousetheater.org. Playing Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm through February 7. Running time is eighty minutes with no intermission.