Make Believe – Review by Tom Nissley

An amazing production of a new play by Bess Wohl is playing at Hartford Stage. I’ve recommended it to lots of persons and love it for the way it reveals a system that broke, and still, in some ways stayed together.

Directed by Jackson Gay, on an intriguing set that represents a big playroom in a suburban house circa 1985, we first meet three young children who are doing young children things on a day, after school, and we get it that they are home alone. Suddenly a fourth child arrives. He is older, but still pre-Teen, and we hear his voice calling for Mom, over and over, and louder and louder. When he bursts into the room he is furious because his snack was not in the kitchen, and he’s sure one of his siblings has eaten it.

Between messages left on the answering machine and other bits of conversation, it becomes obvious that their Dad is away on a business trip, and their Mother has just gone away. There was no snack because there is no Mom. And Chris (Roman Malenda) now helps his sister Kate (Sloan Wolfe) to organize a make-believe family. He’ll be Dad, she’ll be Mom. Their sister Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton) will be their daughter, and tiny Carl (RJ Vercellone) will be their dog. He gives Karl a dog dish, and Master Vercellone beautifully and imaginatively bends into it to eat like a good puppy should. Kate, meanwhile serves Kleenex to Chris and Addie, and they all eat together, sort of, while the family organization continues with some language trills that shock and appear to have been learned by listening to grown-ups we still haven’t seen.

In another scene the four children have gathered beneath an enormous tent stretched at the back of the room. We see their shadows lit from behind and get a glimpse at the fun they sometimes share together. When they are visible in the playroom again, Chris produces a few candy bars from a box he keeps hidden away, and they get to eat something other than kleenex.

Just when it seems that we can’t follow them any longer, they wander off, and suddenly a grown woman enters the room. She thinks she is alone, catching a little quiet time, but hears a noise and then demands ‘who’s there?’ Out from the tent comes another woman, and a minute later a man struggling to step into pants, and then a shirt that had been left across the room. The women are Kate (Megan Byrne) and Addie (Molly Ward), now grown, back at their homestead because their brother Chris has died, and they have gathered for a memorial service. The guy with Addie was having a moment of unclothed intimacy under the tent. It’s sort of a funny twist. He’s young, he’s also named Chris (Chris Gaffari), and he was a friend of Chris from his office.

They are all waiting for Carl (Brad Heberlee) to arrive. His plane was delayed. When he comes he still has words that he intended to speak at the memorial, and after first thinking forget it, he decides to share them anyway. As he tells how his brother used to make him be the dog, he begins to cry, and then sobs. There’s a feeling of helplessness for the family that never managed to stay close, and still has some strange closeness pulling them together.

When they try to decide what to do with Chris’ ashes, they turn to the young Chris. Why is he here? How is he part of them, if at all? It turns out that he knew their brother with another kind of closeness, that might have worked well under the playroom tent. Related to a background story of a man who used to give Chris those candy bars… The young Chris takes the ashes. Kate and Carl go down to talk to the neighbors. Addie is alone, then suddenly shocked when a young girl walks in covered in a sheet with eyeholes like the ones they used to dress up in. But this time it is her daughter. She pulls her close, and there is a moment of warmth that feels like a great step forward.

If you can get to see this play, I’ve been telling folks, it’s worth it. Tickets and information at www.hartfordstage.org, or 860-527-5151.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre. September 22

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