By Ryan Leeds
Playwright Bess Wohl is obviously a product of the eighties. For her new play, Make Believe, Scenic designer Antje Ellermann has included a Pound Puppy, Trapper Keeper, Walkman, Strawberry Shortcake suitcase, Care Bears, and movie posters including Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Flight of the Navigator, and Krull.
At first blush, one might have warm feelings of nostalgia seeing all of these fads spread out in the playroom and listening to the family’s telephone answering machine. Stick around to the end, however, and those sentiments will melt into a much deeper poignancy.
Wohl’s ambitious work, making its world premiere at Hartford Stage, begins in an unsupervised house. Kate (Sloane Wolfe), Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton), Carl (RJ Vercellone), and Chris (Roman Malenda) have been left to fend for themselves. The siblings’ father is away on a “business” trip and their mother has skipped town. Consequently, the foursome decides to emulate the troubling scenarios of an unhappy home life. Years later, they reunite as adults in the same room to face the trauma and troubles of their youth. Typical sibling rivalry has now grown into an emotional distance from one another.
Make Believe is not light fare. Although it conforms to the now common time frame of 90 minutes, it packs a lifetime of emotion into every moment. Like her last work, Small Mouth Sounds, Wohl doesn’t shy away from taboo subjects. She, along with Make Believe‘s astute director Jackson Gay, isn’t afraid to tackle and unpack tough situations. In an interview with assistant dramaturg Yan Chen, Wohl said, “There’s a saying, ‘Never work with children or animals in the theatre,’ and any time I hear the word ‘never,’ I always get excited about doing exactly what I’ve been told not to do.”
Thank goodness for her defiance. Casting director Laura Stanczyk could not have gifted Wohl and Gay with more exceptional child actors. Each of them has been faced with challenging roles that require a great deal of maturity, and they are portrayed with natural ease. The adult actors are also stellar as they carry these heavy burdens into adulthood.
Wohl is one of the freshest and most realistic American voices working in the theater right now. She has the remarkable ability to say so much through pauses and silence. It is within them that we find the authentic soul of her story and characters. In the wrong hands, they might be interpreted as pacing or timing issues, but Wohl carefully crafts them in a way that is intended to make us feel. In the midst of our hectic, rushed lives that leave little opportunity for introspection, Wohl serves as our conscious and trusted therapist. There is no artifice or formulaic structure in her work. Wohl strips all of that away to reveal the true essence of what really matters in life.
Make Believe may, at times, strike close to the bone. For those who have survived unpleasant childhoods, it might trigger too much pain. It may also prove cathartic. Either way, it’s best to arm yourself with a box of tissues to help with any unexpected reaction.
(l to r) Molly Ward, Megan Byrne, Brad Heberlee in ‘Make Believe.’ (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
What other critics are saying:
Wohl makes a gutsy call in building her play around young actors to confront the sobering subject of how permanently adults scar their children when ignoring the fact that they’re even listening. Yet she, Gay, and the entire company pull it off as honest playwriting instead of a parlor trick. — ShoreLine Times
Jackson Gay’s direction is extremely strong, punctuating the frenetic and energetic lives of the children and the more somber, reserved adults they become. — Broadway World
The casting, in all, could not be better at Hartford Stage. As the children, Roman Malenda, Alexa Skye Swinton, RJ Vercellone and Sloane Wolfe work as a solid family unit with all the familiar bickering, childish taunting, sibling rivalry and parental influence on display. Playing the adults, Megan Byrne, Brad Heberlee and Molly Ward excel as grown-up versions of three of the children while Chris Ghaffari is both amusing and poignant as an outsider who, unknowingly, has secrets to share. — CT Post Chronicle
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Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics and Teaching Theatre Magazine. Follow him on