‘Visiting Edna’ delves into adult son to parent relationship as death looms

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The power of ‘Visiting Edna,” Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe’s play premiering at Steppenwolf Theatre, is the utter normalcy of the conversations that take place when a married son visits his terminally ill mother.

Debra Monk (Edna) and Ian Barford (Andrew) in 'Visiting Edna' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Debra Monk (Edna) and Ian Barford (Andrew) in ‘Visiting Edna’ at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Rabe’s brilliance, projected in the superb acting of Debra Monk as Edna and Ian Barford as son Andrew, is that the drama is subtle enough to apply to almost any family and be understood and appreciated by any audience.

Monk who has worked on Broadway and in film makes a terrific Steppenwolf debut as an elderly, small-town Iowa grandmother who is lonely after her husband and best friend die. Her children and grandchildren live elsewhere.

Already plagued by a heart condition, arthritis, diabetes and a colostomy, she learns that she is dying of cancer. But even with all her problems she wants to live. She also wants to see more of her son and be reassured that she was a good mother and is loved.

Barford, a veteran Steppenwolf and Broadway actor, is the dutiful son who isn’t always sure how to react but tries to be helpful by taking Edna to another specialist. His family and successful career are on the East coast which may make it hard to visit often but he sends a small monthly check to help with expenses.

The foil characters here are two Steppenwolf ensemble members: television actor Tim Hopper who is the cancer that will take over Edna’s body, and Broadway actress Sally Murphy who is the television set that tries to counter despair and worry by suggesting distracting TV shows.

Directed by Tony Award-Winning Anna D. Shapiro of ‘August: Osage County’ fame, the production’s  four-way interaction among Edna, Andrew, cancer and TV set are so strong that someone battling cancer might want to think twice about seeing the show. However, anyone confronting aging and illness personally or in the family will arguably pick up messages from Rabe’s fine play.

One problem that doesn’t seem to be answered is that Edna and Andrew seem to feel there is some kind of gulf in their relationship. They seem to search for answers to why they are not closer but it’s hard to tell if they found the answers they wanted.

Details: ‘Visiting Edna’ is at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, IL 60614 now through Nov. 6, 2016. For tickets and other information call (312) 335-1650 and visit Steppenwolf.

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