Review: “Rest” (Victory Gardens Theater)

Rest, Produced by Victory Gardens Theatre
Rest, Produced by Victory Gardens Theatre

Show:Rest

Company: Victory Gardens Theater

Venue: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater

Dice Roll: 20

How do we let people go out of our lives? This is the central question around which the action of Rest revolves, and the answers can be awfully surprising.  I think people on the whole think that they would handle such situations with grace; but the reality is so very messy, especially when you’re facing the loss of someone you love.

Rest, a gorgeously-written new play by Victory Gardens Ensemble Playwright Samuel D. Hunter,  explores the process of loss. Set in the last days of an assisted-living facility in northern Idaho that’s been sold off, the three remaining residents and four staff members have to make do when an unexpected storm snows them in. Complicating matters is the disappearance of the oldest resident, Gerald (William J. Norris), who is suffering from the final stages of Alzheimer’s, and the introduction of Ken (Matt Farabee), a slightly off-kilter young man who fills in as a temporary cook just as the storm falls.

In addition to their missing patient, the staff deals in varying ways with their imminent unemployment. Every character faces the immediate loss of something huge in her life, be it a job, a home, or a husband; and how they choose to express or repress their feelings about that loss is what drives the play.

MaryAnn Thebus  as Etta, and Amanda Drinkall as Faye form an especially tight bond. Presumably the characters have known each other for at least six years, but they don’t really start to connect until the ending of their association (the closure of the rest home).  Hunter effectively explores the communication differences between millennials and people fifty or so years older using these two characters, and the resulting conversations are telling. Especially on trial is the unintentional patronization inherent in the modern expression of sympathy – the cooing, the Hallmark phrases, and the secret belief that there is a need to “perform compassion” to such an extent that the recipient knows just How Sorry You Are For Their Loss. When Etta snapped, “That’s annoying!” to Faye’s tired attempts at empathy, I almost stood up and cheered. Something interesting happened next: Faye, although a little taken aback, takes this critique as it’s intended and makes an effort to really see, hear, and speak to Etta. So often millennial characters  stay stuck in their stereotypical twenty-something, self-involved, insecure worlds. Hunter does this age group a great service by pulling his characters out of this navel-gazing stage and into the real world.

While the acting is a little uneven at times, two actors really stand out in supporting roles: Ernest Perry, Jr. as resident Tom, whom the staff treats as though he’s deaf and disengaged; in reality, he’s probably the most  with-it character in the play. He plays with the assumptions of the staff to great comic effect, and it leads to a fantastic smack-down in the second act.

Steve Key also turns in a fun performance as Jeremy, the hapless soon-to-be-ex-administrator of the rest home. I also give the actor props for completely changing my mind about the character. What started as a somewhat uptight bureaucrat quickly devolves into a man desperately trying to keep control over a situation for which he has absolutely no skills.  He is by turns frustrating, hilarious, and heart-tugging – especially in a scene late in the play where he and his two CNAs end up huddling together for warmth on the lounge sofa, covered in blankets, all wondering what the hell they’re going to do next. It’s a beautiful image.

The production has a tendency to sink into the maudlin, especially in the second act, mainly in the scenes between Faye and Etta, and later Faye and Ginny (McKenzie Chinn). It feels like the crying starts about five minutes into the second act and goes on for the next twenty or so with little to no humor to break it up; or at least, not enough to give the audience a breather. For the record, I don’t think the issue is with the script.

One thing that struck me early on: understanding the place of the play opens up more layers to the story. This is a play set in the Idaho panhandle, in a facility off of a farm access road, in winter, amidst a sudden, days-long blizzard that inhibits outside help from reaching the home’s residents.  It’s remote, and the people who live in these places are self-sufficient and generous, hard-working and deep-thinking. Not so dissimilar to Chicagoans, but we don’t see the kind of weather our intrepid characters have to deal with, and I doubt many of us have faced the isolation they endure with as much common-sense capability. Well. Except maybe Jeremy.

All this said, it’s a show worth seeing. Most of the press has centered on the Alzheimer’s aspect of the play, but I contend that there’s a much more nuanced exploration of transition and journeys, with the effect of Alzheimer’s on the characters as one of many obstacles. If that serves as an entry-point for a potential audience-member, then I’m glad of it, but like all really good plays, this is an engaging study of human relationships under duress.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Endings are beginnings which end only to begin once more.

RATING: d10: “Worth Going To”