Monday, September 24, 2018

Review of "Make Believe"

How do the traumas and events of our childhood shape our adult lives?  This is the central question in the disappointing world premiere of playwright Bess Wohl’s Make Believe, playing at Hartford Stage through September 30th.

L-R: Sloane Wolf, Roman Malenda (background), RJ Vercellone, Alexa Skye Swinton

The show begins with an interesting set-up.  Four pre-teen children, waiting for the arrival of their mother, are entertaining themselves in their spacious rec room, effectively and meticulously conceived by Scenic Designer Antje Ellermann.  But we soon realize that play time is not all innocent fun, filled with sugar and spice and everything nice.  These are kids that have been brought up in an unloving profanity-laced environment and it shows in their interactions and foolery.  We learn some of the backstory from a serious of voice mails left on the telephone (this is the pre-cell phone era of the mid-1980’s) during their wait.

L-R: Molly Ward, Megan Byrne, Brad Heberlee

Almost a third of the way through the production the cast of children seamlessly changes over, with three of them morphing into their adult selves.  They have reunited, some 30 years later, for a funeral.  Gathered in the old playroom, their splintered and distressing struggles come into full view as they reminisce, pontificate, and contemplate their present lives.

While the premise of the show has potential, it is not fully realized and leads to unfulfilling characters who invite little sympathy and compassion.  The problems and the ordeals of the adults read like a laundry list of hardships and quandaries—divorce, alcoholism, gay relationships, pill popping, infidelity, dysfunctional relationships and even autism is thrown in to the mix.  We obtain a cursory understanding of each role, nothing more.  Delving further into the psyche of the characters would have produced a more satisfying result.

Chris Ghaffari in "Make Believe."

The cast is uniformly fine.  The four child actors—Alexa Skye Swinton (Addie), Sloane Wolfe (Kate), Roman Malenda (Chris), and RJ Vercellone (Carl)—deserve praise for, on the whole, holding the audience’s attention as they lay down the foundation of the play. The adult performers portraying their childhood counterparts--Megan Byrne (Kate), Brad Heverlee (Carl), and Molly Ward (Addie)—aptly demonstrate angst, regret, and a dollop of self-loathing, but their portrayals lack a substantive core, which hampers a more well-rounded performance. Chris Ghaffari, adds a touch of comic relief (or is that numbskull relief) as Chris’ friend Chris.

RJ Vercellone in "Make Believe."

Director Jackson Gay is more successful guiding her small charges through their paces.  She has the freedom and flexibility of composing playful games and routines for them while also bringing forth the darker side of their lives.  The adult segment is less compelling except during the moments that are punctuated by silence and lack of intimacy.  By having the siblings be more distant to each other, even though close in proximity, Gay effectively illustrates their non-relationships and damaged persona.  The most telling part of the entire production occurs when the grown-up Carl begins to cry and neither sister reaches out to comfort him.

Make Believe, a work that could use some further refining, playing at Hartford Stage through September 30th.

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