Do the traumas of childhood shape our adult lives or do we overcome them? And are we shaped by the parenting of those who bring us up or are we conditioned by our experiences and our environment? These are the questions that playwright Bess Wohl (Small Mouth Sounds, Continuity) dramatizes in her latest provocative and imaginative play, Make Believe, now having its New York premiere at the Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater.
Wohl’s unusual form in this play is that we meet the four Conlee children in 1980 playing in their attic, and then we meet them again 30 years later as adults in the same attic at a family funeral. Michael Greif’s intriguing production double casts the play with child actors playing the younger selves and adult actors in the second half. When the older children, Chris, aged twelve, and Kate, aged ten, return home from school, they discover that their mother is missing. Addie, aged seven, keeps busy with her cabbage patch doll, while Chris refers to Carl, aged five, as a dog and he crawls around and barks, never speaking.
Not only is their mother missing but their father is not around either. They believe that their father is either dead (this is what their mother has previously stated) or on a business trip. The children have been told not to answer the phone so that we get to hear a series of phone messages that make it clear that Mrs. Conlee has missed appointments and even her friends do not know where she is. Eventually we find out that the father is working in Albuquerque – but with a girlfriend along at his hotel – cursing about why his wife doesn’t pick up.
Although we do not learn much about the children in the episodic first half with its brief scenes (Kate is a very dedicated student, Chris is a troublemaker and tells lies, Addie has a maternal instinct even at age seven, while Carl is very impressionable and follows orders), we get intimations of their parents’ marriage. The children reenact dinner with play food and Chris as the father is quite abusive and violent while Kate as their mother seems to be afraid of him. When the real food and the candy they have been living on runs out and Chris returns with supplies from the supermarket including beer, we do not know where he is getting the money from. He also starts skipping school which suggests his rebellious, nonconformist nature. In the last scene of childhood they are all dressed in black clothing as if for a funeral or a formal affair though we are given no clue as to what it may be: has the mother died? Is the father remarrying? We don’t know for sure.
In the second half of this intermissionless play at a funeral 30 years later, we discover how they have turned out as adults and the effects of their traumatic childhoods. Taking refuge from their father’s second family, they are in hiding in the attic which does not seem to have changed a bit. Kate, now a gastroenterologist, is an anxious type, continually taking a drink, and worrying about things that are beyond her control. Addie, now the mother of Emily, is a television celebrity, with a low tolerance for stress. Bitter Carl is late as his plane has been grounded due to a fog in San Francisco, and he has missed the funeral. Kate has never forgiven their mother for her disappearance or their father his remarriage to a Scandinavian. They all live as far from their childhood home as they could possibly have gotten.
As they speak of the events of their childhood, they all remember it differently and have alternate memories. We learn much about Chris who has had the most eventful life of the four. Many long-held secrets are revealed. The lengthy second half which is played in one long scene has a great deal more tension than the first half when we see them as children. By the end of the play we know them all a great deal better than we did from the first half of the play. What may seem make believe in childhood may shape a person’s entire life. Little did young Chris know how wrong he was going to be when he stated that “It’s going to be okay. This is just our childhood. We are not even going to remember most of this stuff when we grow up.”
Although director Michael Greif is best known for his seven Broadway musicals including the Pulitzer Prize winning Rent and Next to Normal and the Tony Award winning Dear Evan Hansen and Grey Gardens, he has also staged such important new plays as Bruce Norris’s The Low Road and Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide … at the Public, Theresa Rebeck’s Spike Heel at The Second Stage, and Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho at Signature Theatre Center. Make Believe is played at a tremendous speed and the eight actors give sharp, detailed performances.
Maren Heary’s Young Kate seems to be the most mature of the children, though in her distress at being abandoned she writes a hilarious letter to Princess Grace of Monaco asking to be adopted. As Young Chris who takes over as head of the family, Ryan Foust is both volatile and devious, often scaring his other siblings. Casey Hilton’s Young Addie seems single-minded but demonstrates dark depths like when she tears the stuffing out of her doll. As Carl pretending to be a dog, Harrison Fox is totally focused though seeming to be somewhat learning challenged.
As adults they are quite different. Chic Samantha Mathis as Kate is outwardly nervous but inwardly a planner and a fighter. Susannah Flood’s Addie always fidgeting with her hair is outwardly calm but inwardly a mess. Watch how she tears into her oversized purse to find her pills. Brad Heberlee as Carl is angry, bitter and very wound-up, while Kim Fischer’s adult Chris is quite charming.
David Zinn’s enormous set for the Conlee attic has so many props that you could examine it for hours. In the first half Emilio Sosa’s costumes are perfect for the children, while his all black clothing for the second half/funeral sequence are remarkably different for each of the four adults. Ben Stanton’s lighting is realistic until a spooky sequence near the end of the play. Bray Poor’s sound design includes the many recorded phone messages that are very revealing.
Bess Wohl’s new play, Make Believe, is a fascinating study of how the traumas of childhood affect our adult lives, particularly the damage seen and unseen parents inflict on their offspring. Director Michael Greif whose trenchant productions go back to the 1990 Machinal at the Public has piloted a fine cast of eight actors both young and mature. Make Believe is at the same time entertaining and enlightening in its dramatizing childhood and its aftermath in an inventive way.
Make Believe (extended through September 22, 2019)
Second Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes with no intermission