Directed by Will Crouse
Produced by The Poor Theatre, Chicago
A Well-Acted Slice of Very Troubled Lives
Reassuring somebody that they’re a “good person” is one of the most common platitudes, but what does it really mean? There are several plays currently in production around Chicago that ask that question, and don’t pretend to offer easy answers. The one in which it is discussed the most explicitly is Take Me Back, a Midwestern premiere by The Poor Theatre of Emily Schwend’s 2014 drama about a recently-released felon and his diabetic mother. Whether he meets the classification is a source of debate not only for the audience, but even for himself.
The setting is Muskogee, Oklahoma, a mid-sized town in the eastern part of the state, and Bill (Dillon Kelleher) has been out of federal prison and living with his mother, Sue (Susan Monts-Bologna) for a few months. He shops for her, prepares her food, and is engaged in a futile campaign to limit her sugar intake. Since she’s a cafeteria worker and it’s summer, he has little relief from her pleas for attention, which are all the more annoying because she is either in the early stages of senility, just not very bright, or both. Bill also has a pending “business deal” that night for which he will require his truck, which he hasn’t been able to start since his release, and is only now attempting to fix. While he searches for a toolbox, an unexpected visitor arrives: his ex-girlfriend Julie (Alex Fisher), now married, and in town for her little brother’s wedding.
When Julie arrives, Sue shares with her a small cache of candy, which she later tells Bill that Julie brought over. Something very similar happens in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and it could just be a coincidence, but the comparison is useful in understanding the stifling nature of a household composed entirely of well-meaning people. Julie has returned because her relationship with her husband is rocky, and while she doesn’t exactly say she wants to rekindle her relationship with Bill, he gets the message. Julie, like his mother, reassured him he was a good person, he even worked a legitimate job until his employer found out he was a felon, but now his latest dealing is going awry, and his young accomplice tells him his positive qualities are all superficial. Bill doesn’t seem to know what he wants out of life, and was apparently quite young when he was locked up. He doesn’t seem to have ever been treated as an adult, and thinks that what he needs more than anything is to leave and start anew, though realistically, his chances of doing that successfully are slim.
Regardless of how much a victim you consider Bill, Kelleher gives a believable, recognizable performance of a man driven by self-loathing to destroy himself and alienate those he believes do themselves wrong by loving him. It’s true he seems likable, and Kelleher makes clear that he truly loves his mother, though there’s resentment there, as well. Monts-Bologna’s performance makes that entirely understandable; Sue really is a nice woman, but needy, ignorant, and uncooperative. What’s amazing about her performance is that the most annoying thing about Sue is how boring she is, but Monts-Bologna is so funny, in a sad way, that one doesn’t mind her being the center of attention, and there is clearly a well of strength far beneath the character’s surface. Fisher plays Julie, the smartest character, with awareness of the foolishness and danger she is engaged in, but lonely enough to risk starting an affair anyway, and Juliana Liscio, as Bill’s accomplice Casey, is angry and forthright enough to ratchet up the tension surrounding Bill’s soul-searching in just one scene.
Take Me Back is in good hands with director Will Course, whose brisk pace provides us with a sense of doom just hours away, while still allowing the characters to grow organically. President Obama’s recent visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma and advocacy of banning employers from inquiring about job candidates’ criminal background evidences general recognition that the play’s situation is one too many families are in. But Schwind doesn’t offer easy solutions, only the observation that people like Bill are often determined to destroy themselves. Whether that subject is too mundane for drama depends on tastes and the amount of theatre an audience member normally partakes in. There’s not much in Take Me Back that is likely to surprise anyone. But it is performed well, and at the Poor Theatre’s low price (less than $20), a worthwhile investment.
Reviewed July 13, 2015
For more information, see Take Me Back’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Flat Iron Arts Center, 1579 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm, through August 8. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.