Steppenwolf's 'Visiting Edna' delivers dramatic punch in the gut

The renowned naturalism of the Steppenwolf Theatre gets a hearty dose of meta in “Visiting Edna,” the opening play of artistic director Anna Shapiro's first full season as curator. The boob tube, television, and the Big C, cancer, appear onstage as characters in a tug-of-war pulling the lead players in opposite directions.

Even so, those leads couldn't be more familiar or more natural. They'll remind the audience of people they know - if not themselves. And so “Visiting Edna,” in the end, delivers not the traditional Steppenwolf histrionics and onstage fisticuffs, but rather a punch in the gut to the viewer.

It's not the feel-good play of the new theater season, but it figures to be one of the best.

The surface story of playwright David Rabe's world premiere couldn't be simpler. An adult son visits his widowed mother, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, in Iowa. That's it, start to finish.

Yet the drama opens with Steppenwolf trouper Sally Murphy appearing onstage as Actor One, TV, bubbling forth about what she offers the other characters, even as she mulls the wisdom of the playwright casting an actor as television - complete with rabbit-ear antenna.

Meta as this is, it sets the stage for the appearance of black-clad Tim Hopper as Actor Two, cancer. Pointedly referring to Edna as “my host” with the arrival of her adult son, Andrew, he says in an aside, “Isn't it odd? They don't even mention me. And I'm the reason he's here.”

Between them, TV and cancer will pull the characters in opposite directions, with cancer encouraging the anxiety it's said to thrive on, while TV beckons with mindless diversion. Their interplay with the leads is frequently comical.

“I wish you still smoked,” cancer sighs to Andrew.

Ian Barford, like Murphy and Hopper a Steppenwolf ensemble member, plays Andrew, and he too steps aside to address the audience directly, shattering the so-called fourth wall while Debra Monk's Edna remains locked in the center of the play.

Monk, a Tony Award-winning Broadway veteran making her Steppenwolf debut, is a little too soft-spoken at first. Yet she comes on strong depicting Edna as she slowly shuts down in the face of impending death, refusing to look at family photos or videos by angrily pointing out, “Look how beautiful I was!”

Dying Edna (Debra Monk) gets a visit from her son Andrew (Ian Barford) in Steppenwolf's Theatre's world-premiere production of "Visiting Edna" by David Rabe, directed by artistic director Anna D. Shapiro. courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Considering her husband, embittered older sister and others lost to death, including the Hollywood stars TV keeps touting on Turner Classic Movies, Edna says, “It's all gone, everybody I ever liked or loved.”

The two-hour, 40-minute play goes a little flat after intermission, when Edna and Andrew are left to their own devices to address some family drama, including a couple of rather clumsy sudden revelations meant to suggest the root of the “darkness” between them.

Yet in the end Rabe drops all pretext and has Andrew return to addressing the audience directly. And as Rabe reaches for the transcendent, Barford does as well and delivers a soliloquy that lands that aforementioned punch in the gut.

Barford is understated and effective as Andrew, traits shared by Shapiro's overall direction as well. Murphy and Hopper are both terrific at opposite ends of the acting spectrum, effervescent and matter-of-fact.

In fact, let's take an aside ourselves right here and look back on Hopper's recent work at Steppenwolf, from milquetoast King Louis XVI in “Marie Antoinette” to the heavy in “Russian Transport” to the stoic patriarch in “East of Eden” to the police bureaucrat in this summer's “Between Riverside and Crazy,” and point out that he's never been better in a wide variety of roles.

Stepping into a favorite local restaurant immediately after the review performance, we found our friend the bartender saying three other Steppenwolf theatergoers had already come in tears - and immediately went for the hard drinks and gnocchi.

That perhaps suggests the power of the play better than any mere review can. So be sure to bring tissues or a handkerchief to “Visiting Edna,” and make reservations for some curative drinks and pasta afterward. It's the best panacea for a theatrical punch in the gut.

“Visiting Edna”

★ ★ ★ ½

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 2 p.m. Wednesday starting Oct. 19; no Sunday evening performances after Oct. 16; runs through Nov. 6

Tickets: $20-$89

Parking: Metered street parking and a pay garage

Rating: Sophisticated themes, but no real language or violence issues; not for young children

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