Make Believe – Review by Geary Danihy

Okay, so lots of people think that theater critics are jaded misanthropes who take great delight, in trashing the endeavors of artistic, creative people who strive to bring beauty and meaning into the world. Well, perhaps, but not in this case. So here’s my review of “Make Believe,” which recently opened up at Hartford Stage.

Wow!

That should be sufficient, but I guess the exclamation needs to be clarified. So, under the astute and trenchant direction of Jackson Gay, Bess Wohl’s new play seduces you at the start and then, as the one-act play develops, delivers several body punches that made the audience gasp and moan. It’s smart, perceptive playwriting that carries the audience full circle and would bring a smile to Aristotle’s face, for I defy anyone to say that they do not experience moments of catharsis as “Make Believe” comes to its riveting conclusion.

The entire play takes place in the playroom of a suburban, upper middle-class home. Scenic designer Antje Ellermann has created a children’s paradise with baskets of toys, posters on the wall, a play table with chairs, a tent upstage that serves as a fort, and cushions galore. Ah, childhood bliss.

Not exactly, for the four siblings in the house seem to have been left alone. In the background, the phone continues to ring and we hear the greeting message left by the children’s mother, but the mother is absent, so the children are left to their own devices – Kate (Sloane Wolfe) meticulously doing her math homework, Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton) playing with her doll, Carl (RJ Vercellone), the youngest, doing his dog routine and Chris (Roamn Malenda), the oldest child, bouncing his soccer ball, until he viciously attacks Addie’s doll (the motivation for this violence will be revealed late in the play).

Ah, but listen to the messages that are left on the answering machine – they embrace the conflicts of an adult world that impinge on these four children and taint their lives, even though the children appear to disregard the angst, anger and anxiety that these messages convey (the parents are heard but never seen). Instead, the children proceed to act out what they perceive to be normal family relationships, complete with a dominant, abusive (perhaps alcoholic) father, a somewhat subservient mother, a dutiful daughter and an extremely repressed (he doesn’t speak) son. What first appears to be four children simply playing slowly becomes an analysis, albeit subtle, of how adult actions influence children’s lives. It’s to Wohl’s credit that here she doesn’t moralize or become didactic, she just lets the children do what they want (have to) to survive and allows the audience to draw its own conclusions.
The “kids in the playroom” part of this one-act play also involves the four children gathering in the tent/fort, their forms silhouetted by Paul Whitaker’s lighting. While inside, Chris tells them a ghost/monster story that should be closely attended to, for although it seems the stuff of childish imagination it will play a large part as the play draws to its conclusion.

Eventually, after some more acting out, the children disappear back into the tent, and we flash-forward to the present day as some of the children, now grown, appear. First to show up is the adult Kate (Megan Byrne), followed by Addie (Holly Ward) who has been sharing a romantic moment in the children’s tent with Chris (not her brother – the new Chris played by Chris Ghaffari), a man who has worked with the brother, Chris, at a fitness gym.

It’s difficult to discuss the latter section of the play without a spoiler moment, but…whatever. The siblings have gathered for the funeral of their brother, Chris, who apparently died of an overdose. Carl (Brad Herberlee), whose flight was delayed by weather, eventually appears – so we have three of the four siblings gathered in the playroom, plus Chris from the gym. What follows is something of a memory game, with fallacies and falsehoods falling away and revelations that give an entirely different perspective on much of what happened earlier in the play, all leading up to a riveting reveal that sends a shudder through the audience.

What makes this all work as well as it does is the superb casting. The four young actors, while ably depicting how children move and talk, seem to be very much aware of who they will grow up to be, and the personalities of the adult siblings are reflections of what the audience has already seen. It’s a deft piece of directing, for Gay never loses sight of where she wants this play to go and how she has to make the audience believe that the children they see in the first part of the play turn into the adults they see in the play’s conclusion. There’s even a nice moment at the curtain call involving how the young actors are brought back on stage – it initially seems “cute” but, when you think about it, it delivers a message that dovetails with what the play is all about.

As for the adult actors, there’s not a false move or a suspect line throughout the entire time they are on stage. We saw them as children, and the characteristics that were made manifest early on have hardened into psychological cinder blocks, and the audience grasps how these adults have become who they are.

Special mention must be made of Herberlee’s performance as Carl, the sibling who arrives late to the funeral. Carl had planned to give a speech at the funeral ceremony, but instead delivers it to his siblings in the playroom. It’s a moving, mesmerizing, heart-tugging monologue that brought the audience to a tense, palpable, painful silence.

Watching “Make Believe” reminds us of why we go to the theater, and why live theater has existed for millennia and will continue to exist. Yes, it’s a cliché, but when you see a play that grabs you, belief is suspended – you travel into the world of the play and forget you are in a theater. In the case of “Make Believe,” for the 90 minutes or so that the play runs, you are in that playroom, first with the children and then with the adults, and for that time there’s nothing make believe about “Make Believe.”

“Make Believe” runs through September 30. For tickets or more information call 860-520-7125 or go to www.hartfordstage.org

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