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Heartrending: "Visiting Edna" @Steppenwolf Theatre

(left to right) Debra Monk (Edna), ensemble member Ian Barford (Andrew) and ensemble member Sally Murphy (Actor One)in Steppenwolf’s world premiere production of Visiting Edna by David Rabe, directed by Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro. Visiting Edna is playing through November 6, 2016 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre (1650 N Halsted St). Tickets ($20-$89) are available at 312-335-1650 and Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Opening Steppenwolf's 41st season is the world premiere of renowned playwright David Rabe’s Visiting Edna. Directed by Steppenwolf's Artistic Director, Anna D. Shapiro, Visiting Edna brings audience members into the moving world of an ailing mother and her often emotionally distant son. The mother, Edna, is portrayed by Tony and Emmy Award winner Debra Monk, while her son Andrew is played by ensemble member Ian Barford. Rabe's play opens our eyes to the long-term effects that our seemingly trivial actions and decisions can impose upon our lives. I doubt there will be even one audience member who leaves this production without being reminded of a loved one whom he or she wishes to have simply had more time with.

Visiting Edna delves into the complex world of the familial relationship in our modern society. Often we are so "busy" that we forget to take time to appreciate and acknowledge the seemingly mundane aspects of our lives until it is far too late. A missed family dinner or movie date may seem insignificant in the moment, but as Rabe shows us through Visiting Edna, those "insignificant" moments are what our very lives are built upon. An overarching message of "you never know what you have until it's gone" will stop audience members in their tracks as they watch Edna's slow deterioration and her son's struggle to effectively communicate his love.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Visiting Edna is the manner in which Edna's cancer and our inherent need for distraction through technology are portrayed. Rather than having either aspect be plainly discussed, Cancer and TV become physical characters, with Cancer(Actor Two) being played by ensemble member Tim Hopper and the TV(Actor One) being played by ensemble member Sally Murphy. The urgency brought to these two characters through their human embodiments is perfectly unsettling. Cancer is terrifying enough as just a thought, so to bring it to life as a brooding, pessimistic bully makes its impact that much more intense. It is impossible to ignore its looming presence as it sits beside you in your living room or at your bedside. The idea of death is one that Rabe has made infinitely more alarming with his human portrayal of the subject. Cancer verbally displays our most personal and private inner monologues in such a manner that we are rendered almost helpless in its wake.

TV brings a more light-hearted air to the stage as it gleefully proclaims all of the exciting programs you could be watching instead of wallowing in your own sadness. Though the bubbly nature of TV is enjoyable, the character’s underlying message will hit audience members hard. It is far too often that we find ourselves so overwhelmed with the chaos of our own lives that we will do anything just to escape our reality for even just a few moments. Through TV we are shown how easy it is too hide from our problems rather than facing and accepting them for what they are. Though we may be tuned out from what is occurring within our lives that does not stop the chaos from ensuing. Murphy’s portrayal of TV perfectly highlights this fact, while also providing a brilliant contrast to Hopper’s excellently played role of Cancer. Forcing audiences to face their problems head-on will hopefully spark a conversation about what we could all be doing to truly make the most of our lives.

Debra Monk’s portrayal of Edna is one that will be sure to stick with audience members long after they leave the theatre. By making her so relatable, Monk allows audiences to put themselves into Edna’s world as either the one who is ailing or as the one forced to witness the deterioration. She is able to switch from humorous to heartrending flawlessly throughout the production, which will put audience members on an emotional rollercoaster. Ian Barford also brings a level of relatability to his portrayal of Edna’s son, Andrew. We have all had those moments of inner conflict between facing the harsh reality that is our lives and the facade we attempt to face the world with. His emotional connection to the role is apparent and makes the role an even more impactful one as audiences begin to witness his daily mental and emotional struggles. Michael Rabe (Actor Three) also makes a strong appearance in the production as he enters the stage as the embodiment of the manner in which our subconscious often mixes with our reality in the most unexpected and unsettling ways. Such a strong cast is necessary for a play comprised of raw emotion and the harsh realities of the human condition.

Adding to the strength of Visiting Edna is the brilliant technical work from the production’s designers. Though at first glance, the set may appear as a typical home, scenic designer David Zinn created a beautiful rain effect which added a bit of magic to a seemingly typical setting. Marcus Doshi’s lighting design complimented the range of emotions brought to the stage and aided the actors’ portrayals of highly emotional moments. Linda Roethke’s costume design along with the wig and hair designs by Penny Lane Studios were also outstanding as they managed to capture the reality of our lives without anyone looking too overdone. Often capturing reality can be an exceedingly difficult challenge, so it is refreshing to see a group of designers portray it so brilliantly.

Vising Edna will take audiences on an emotional whirlwind as it forces us all to evaluate the manner in which we live our lives. Playwright David Rabe teaches us that even the smallest moments can create the biggest change and that how we proceed to deal with that change can either make or break us. We are only given these lives for so long, and as Visiting Edna reminds us, we are in full control of how we perceive our own chaos.

Visiting Edna is playing now through November 6 in the Downstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N. Halsted St.). For tickets to this production, please call Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or visit For more information, please visit

Published as a part of Chicago Stage Standard.

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