“Visiting Edna”: A Heart-Breaking and Thought-Provoking New American Play

There’s a monologue at the end of Visiting Edna, the new play by the decorated American playwright David Rabe opening Steppenwolf’s 41st season, the first with Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro, who also directs, at the helm. Andrew, a middle-aged businessman, husband, and father played with heart by Ian Barford, steps forward to address the audience about another station he holds in life: son. He’s made the titular visit to spend time with his mother, the titular Edna, a witty, fast-talking, charming Midwestern woman brought to life by the talented Tony and Emmy Award-winning Debra Monk. She’s also dying of cancer.

Ensmble member Ian Barford (Andrew) and Debra Monk (Edna) in Steppenwolf’s world premiere production of “Visiting Edna” by David Rabe, directed by Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“It is such an honest moment — and one in which I am playing Andrew, yet I am also myself,” reflects Ian Barford in a conversation documented in the playbill. “[A]nd I haven’t been able to get through it once yet without becoming emotionally overwhelmed by the humanity of it and the tenderness with which it is written.”

By the time Andrew steps forward, we’re no stranger to characters addressing us directly. An anthropomorphic TV opens the 2.5-hour play speaking to the audience, beaming with energy and enthusiasm and played by Sally Murphy. In contrast, a much more sinister Cancer, embodied by Tim Hopper, broods and speaks in poetry about his lust for Edna’s insides. Like a tiny angel and tiny devil on someone’s shoulders, TV and Cancer both compete to take time away from Andrew and Edna’s visit.

From left: Debra Monk (Edna), ensemble member Tim Hopper (Actor Two), ensemble member Ian Barford (Andrew), ensemble member Sally Murphy (Actor One) in “Visiting Edna” by David Rabe, directed by Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro. Photos by Michael Brosilow.

How should the pair spend their time together: watch TV? look through old photos? get a third opinion from a doctor out of town? babytalk? Should Andrew feel guilty for spending time with friends? Should he feel guilty for not visiting more? The pair don’t have a blueprint for how this visit should go, but silently agree to ignore the reason they are together: the wicked, cancerous elephant in the room.

It’s the honesty with which Rabe has captured the universal, yet unique, struggle of the aging parent-adult child relationship, combined with the theatrical choice to embody TV and Cancer, that make Visiting Edna a play that appeals to our emotional and intellectual cores.

At the end of their first day together, Edna leaves her comfortable recliner to get ready for bed. Andrew’s seated in his late father’s recliner, normally pushed in the corner since Edna can’t stand to see it empty, and says, “See you in the morning.” “See you in the morning!” Edna repeats, relishing how sweet it sounds to say when someone is visiting. “See you in the morning.” She beams brighter than a LCD television.

A life well-lived is full of visits — visits with friends, visits home, doctors’ visits, visits from below and above, gravesite visits and visits down memory lane. But our visits, like our stories, like our lives, like our reviews, end.

Debra Monk (Edna) and ensemble member Ian Barford (Andrew) in Steppenwolf’s world premiere production of “Visiting Edna” by David Rabe, directed by Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Visiting Edna runs through November 16, 2016 at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, IL. For more information and tickets, visit https://www.steppenwolf.org/