Most plays at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company are must-sees, and the world premiere of “Visiting Edna” is no different. However, you must emotionally prepare yourself for this dramatic behemoth, and that means more than just bringing tissues. If you prepare for “Visiting Edna” you’ll be rewarded with the most realistic depiction of loss ever put on stage.
“Visiting Edna” is the first play by Tony Award-winning David Rabe produced at Steppenwolf since 1985’s “Streamers.” To mentally prepare for the expert story and dialogue Rabe has written, you need to know that the play tackles loss, disease, cancer, separation, and family. Edna, played by Debra Monk, has experienced the loss of her husband, best friend, and sister, has also suffered through physical ailments, and now is fighting cancer. Yet, she couldn’t be any sweeter and desiring of life. Andrew, Edna’s son played by Ian Barford, leaves his family and work in the East and flies to spend time with his mother. He loves his mother like a good son should, but doesn’t share too much. The only other characters are the Television, personified by Sally Murphy, and Cancer, personified by Tim Hopper.
I don’t know how every viewer will absorb this play because it really depends on who you are. I normally wouldn’t insert myself in a review, but it feels necessary to understand how powerful this play can be. I’m 29 years old and live over 1,300 miles away from my parents. I’ve lived away from them in one way or or another for 10 years whether it be for school or work reasons. I miss them and worry about them every day. I don’t visit them enough, and when I do it never feels long enough. Hearing Edna’s complaints about Andrew’s visits when he’s not around couldn’t have cut me harder thinking of what my own parents might think of my infrequent visits.
I don’t call them as often as I should and that’s mostly because I don’t like small talk. “Visiting Edna” made me realize how important small talk is. Rabe’s dialogue between mother and son rarely reaches any form of conflict, confession, or surprise throughout. Conversations about yogurt, weather, nostalgia, flowers, and other niceties dominate the play. In my personal life, I usually avoid such conversation because I find it inauthentic and useless. Let’s talk about real stuff or nothing at all. Edna taught me that when you have a limited amount of time with someone, any conversation, big or small, is not only appreciated but needed. A child is an accomplishment, and as nice as it is to watch that accomplishment grow and succeed from afar it’s still nice to have them just sit with you and share a space so you can marvel at the details up close no matter the conversation.
Before you think that the play is just a mother and son sitting around talking about nothing, don’t forget about the Television and Cancer. Both characters help break up the extreme realism. Television is the much-needed comic relief serving almost as a pet wanting attention, and like most households in America we turn to it to distract us from life or as an escape before we’ve run out of small talk but don’t want to delve into our real feelings. Cancer provides laughter too, but in a darker sense. The Television wants you to escape your problems but Cancer wants you to rummage in your deepest regrets, fights, and self-destruction. “I wish you still smoked,” says Cancer putting ideas in the heads of the stressed characters.
With so many people affected by cancer, seeing it personified can be difficult. When thought of as abnormal cell growth it’s not easy to wrap your head around it. Add a voice and a personality and something that you thought of in an abstract sense becomes something you want to punch in the face—not because the character in the play is purposefully mean or evil but just because it exists. “See you in the morning,” says Cancer knowing there are little mornings left. “Doesn’t that sound nice.”
“Visiting Edna” can be a cathartic experience and can help you become a better son, mother, patient, or doctor. However, you must be ready to face those inner struggles to see past the pain and focus on reality. In the play there is this vase of flowers that Edna is always struggling to know what to do with. They’re drooping but they still smell nice. Throw them away or keep them in the vase for a little longer? Whatever your choice is fine, but at some point you’re going to have to make a decision.
“Visiting Edna” runs through Nov. 6 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets start at $20. For more information visit steppenwolf.org/tickets–events/seasons/2016-17/visiting-edna/?id=20858.