The Distance

Bea (Abigail Boucher)

By Deborah Bruce

Directed by Elly Green

Produced by Haven Theatre Company

Playing at Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago

If you had a friend who was desperately unhappy and thought they needed to make a major change that would not only be completely different from what you would do, but offensive to your deepest-held morals, would you support them? That’s the question at the core of British writer Deborah Bruce’s 2012 play The Distance, now enjoying its American premiere under the direction of English transplant Elly Green. In it, three women make very different choices for their families, and as the friends delve deeper into their reasons for doing so during a crisis, their ability to put on a polite face for each other becomes more and more frayed. The result is a challenging examination of parental responsibility that is starkly honest and darkly funny.

We first see Bea (Abigail Boucher) hooking up in a hotel room in Malaysia with a man she has just met (Josh Odor). She’s so rattled she’s not even sure which country her layover is in, after having just left Australia. She then proceeds to her native England, where she stays at the home of her friend, Kate (Megan Kohl) and her husband, Darragh (Layne Manzer). Kate is extremely worried that by fleeing Australia suddenly, Bea has given her husband an opportunity to take their two young children all for himself, and that immediate action is required if Bea is to get custody. Their mutual friend, three-time divorcee Alex (Allison Latta), is there as well, but she’s a little drunk and distracted by having left her teenage son with a friend in Brixton on what turns out to be the second night of the London riots. Kate, too, is having obvious and awkward problems with her husband, and it’s only through her relentlessly commanding tone that she keeps everyone focused on the task of strengthening Bea’s claim to the children. Eventually, however, Bea has to spell out for Kate and Alex that she has at no point expressed any interest in ever seeing her children again.

Man (Josh Odor) and Bea (Abigail Boucher)

Kate is simply astonished, and decides Bea cannot possibly be in her right mind. For Bea to say, as she does, that she never loved her children at all must indicate some kind of temporary insanity, or simply be a cover for some other issue. Bea partly expected this response, but insists her feelings are not going to change, and that she has decided to simply accept them. Meanwhile, Alex becomes increasingly distraught as she is unable to contact her son, and when she gets distraught, she gets drunker and a little stoned. Darragh, happy for an excuse to get away from Kate, volunteers to pick up Alex’s teenage son, Liam (Nik Kmiecik), but that only leaves Kate’s brother-in-law, Vinnie (Patrick Gannon) free to confront her about having forced Darragh to abandon the child he had out of wedlock years ago. Though partly glad to no longer be the center of attention, Bea would still like for someone to validate her decision. She’d also like someone to allow her to try to enjoy her newfound freedom, at least this first night.

Kate (Megan Kohl), Alex (Allison Latta), and Bea (Abigail Boucher)

All three of the families have made decisions about their children that most people would cringe at, and yet, are quite common. Kate at one point defends herself by saying that it is worse for children to be without their mother than their father, and this way of thinking, too, has caused a lot of stress among families when applied in both directions, but Bruce’s main concern is the psychological condition that leads to troubled parenting. Boucher shines in a difficult role; Bea knows most people will condemn her, she knows her inability to bond with her children could fairly be called some kind of defect, and yet, her desperation and misery are so powerful, it’s not hard to understand her thought process. Kohl, too, carries a difficult part, as Kate is the modern equivalent of one of Ibsen’s conservative ideologue characters—abrasive, hypocritical, antagonistic—but not entirely wrong. Remarkably, by the end of the play, Kohl has succeeded in making Kate somewhat likeable. Latta is responsible for most of the play’s humor, and she does a fine job of playing the inebriated extreme end of behavior within the boundaries of realism. Outrageous as Alex’s behavior is, it’s easily recognizable in real people, and doesn’t completely contradict her love for her son.

Liam (Nik Kmiecik), Darragh (Layne Manzer), Kate (Megan Kohl), Alex (Allison Latta), and Vinnie (Patrick Gannon)

At the beginning of the play’s second act, Bea meets Liam, and basically asks for his reassurance that children are resilient enough to withstand far-less-than ideal mothers. The scene is sweet, sad, uncomfortable, and slightly repulsive, as Liam realizes with mounting horror that the adults are hardly any more mature than he is (Kmiecik’s acting, too, is outstanding). It’s significant that Joe Schermoly has designed a sleek, modern house for the play’s action to take place in, because the play is discussing changes in modern family arrangements which make many people uncomfortable. Tellingly, despite Kate and Darragh having a baby daughter, there are no toys or anything else child-related onstage or apparent in the costumes by Rachel Sypniewski. Elly Green has captured the complexities of The Distance by allowing her actors to explore them without judgment, but not without consequences. Once Liam is present, Alex’s irresponsibility becomes much less funny, and our perspective on the characters shifts again as we imagine how all this must seem to the other children who are mentioned. It’s the old question of duty vs. self-fulfillment, a question Green handles with sophistication.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis

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Reviewed May 23, 2016

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see The Distance’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing on the West Stage at Raven Theatre, 6157 N Clark St, Chicago. Tickets are $28, with discounts for seniors/students/industry. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:30 pm through June 26. Running time is two hours with one intermission.