By Brian Delaney
Directed by Steve Scott
Produced by Redtwist Theatre, Chicago
Family Drama with a Rare Heart
Former Abbey Theatre New Playwrights Programme director Brian Delaney’s The Seedbed so neatly encapsulates the common themes of naturalistic Irish drama that few people would guess that it premiered at the New Jersey Repertory Company last year. But so it did, and the small Edgewater storefront Redtwist has snagged the Chicago premiere of this close-up on a very screwed-up family. But while American plays like Buried Child, August: Osage County, and especially The Lyons often adopt a blackly humorous approach to self-destructive households, The Seedbed is much quieter and sympathetic to its characters. It’s no bore, though, since Delaney makes the play into a mystery for the audience, as we are first kept in the dark about the exact nature of the incident which caused this family’s crises, and then confused about which of them, if any, can be trusted.
Middle-aged Irish couple Hannah (Jacqueline Grandt) and Thomas (Mark Pracht) are awaiting the return to their eighteen-year-old daughter, Maggie (Abby Dillion), from Amsterdam. She’s not Thomas’s biological daughter, but he raised her from a very young age. Six months ago, the girl fled to the continent after an emotional meltdown and a bout of heavy drinking and promiscuity, and her parents are nervous that saying the wrong thing could cause her to walk out of their lives forever. The couple have also been fighting each other, which they recognize is related to their daughter’s distress, but insist that they’ve made up; the first time we see Hannah, she’s bringing Thomas rare pet birds as an anniversary present. She casually mentions that Maggie has gotten a serious English boyfriend while in Amsterdam, and that he’ll be coming to the house with her.
The parents are astonished when the boyfriend, Mick (Adam Bitterman), turns out to be the same age they are. Hannah had known that he and Maggie were engaged, but not how old he is; Thomas had been completely in the dark. He is as polite to Mick as he can manage, but before bed on the first night, tempers flare, and Mick is made to exercise some very delicate social finesse. The English florist is disturbed, however, by the insinuations flying around that he doesn’t understand exactly what he’s gotten himself into, and wanting to know exactly what skeletons are awaiting in his in-laws closet before marrying into it, starts an investigation. What he learns is that at least one member of the household has an extremely unhealthy and possessive attachment to another, and that Maggie’s temporary removal had only suspended the conflict, instead of cooling it down.
Even by Redtwist standards, director Steve Scott’s staging is intimate. Up close, it is clear how totally invested each of the four actors are in their character. Bitterman is particularly memorable for the amount of roguish charm he brings to Mick, a surprisingly cool guy for a geezer engaged to a teenager, who can’t help himself from accidently violating middle-class social norms even while speaking disparagingly of the uncultured, hard-scrabble company he grew up in (and inadvertently offending his hosts). From the way he interacts with Maggie and her parents it seems that he does believe he wants what’s best for her, but that he really doesn’t know her, and she’s hardly told him anything important. Hannah and Thomas make ugly accusations about each other, and from Grandt and Pracht’s performances, it’s hard to know which of them to believe. They both seem like they could be guilty, or the long-suffering victim of a pathological spouse. Dillion’s Maggie is still neurotic, but on her best behavior, and determined to believe that meeting Mick has turned her life around. The copious amount of deception going on is as much directed inwardly as outwards.
People experienced with this kind of story will likely figure out the family’s true history before the nearly two and a half hour long play ends, but with Mick as a proxy asking the audience’s questions, the journey is as tense as it is humorous. For even though Delaney doesn’t present these characters just so their flaws can be snickered at, the play is full of embarrassing moments and saucy remarks. Elyse Balough’s scenic design does as much as Scott’s direction and the naturalism of the actors to immerse us in this household, and from such a strong place of identification, it’s not hard to feel a connection to them. The Seed Bed is a solid family drama, with dark themes, but a mature perspective. And while the play avoids hysterics for the most part, there is enough action to keep audiences alert, if they wish to avoid a sour surprise at close quarters.
Reviewed June 18, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see The Seedbed’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W Bryn Mawr, Chicago. Tickets are $30-35, with discounts for students and seniors; to order, call 773-728-7529. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through July 17. Running time is two hours and twenty minutes, with one intermission.