Chicago Theater Review: REST (Victory Gardens)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 20, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

SUNSET ASSISTED DYING

Samuel D. Hunter, Victory Gardens Theater ensemble playwright and recent recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award, specializes in tender tales of gutsy outsiders, spunky survivors who use their pain to feel that of others. Produced by V.G. in 2013, his The Whale celebrated the humanity of a terminally obese man (the wonderful Dale Calandra) who arduously rose above the insults he endured.

Sympathy for life’s underdogs infuses the Midwest premiere of Rest, a very communal drama set in a euphemistically called “rest home” in northern Idaho. What follows is a well-felt drama where one good contends with another—evil, happily, is dismissed for two hours. Here, life uses people to sort out its priorities. If there’s nothing new in script or story, or in Joanie Schultz’ meritorious Midwest premiere, there’s nothing false either. How many plays can say that?

McKenzie Chinn, Steve Key, and Amanda Drinkall in Samuel D. Hunter’s REST at Victory Gardens. Photo by Michael Courier.

“Rest” implies more peace than this turbulent winter day will ever allow. A furious snowstorm has stranded a nursing home’s embattled residents, forcing them to face choices an ordinary day might have spared. Jeremy (Steve Key) timorously runs the place with the self-confidence of a melting snowman. His latest staffer is dweebish teenager Ken (Matt Farabee), a nervous newbie who forgets to put salt in the food, and is reflexively religious. The young aides are local girls Ginny (McKenzie Chinn) and Faye (Amanda Drinkall), who have embarked on a life-altering agreement: Ginny has paid Faye to become a surrogate mother for Ginny’s future child. Both believe the baby will make a difference in their too-ordinary lives, though Faye is having second and third thoughts about hosting another’s offspring.

Matt Farabee, McKenzie Chinn, MaryAnn Thebus, Amanda Drinkall, and Steve Key in Samuel D. Hunter’s REST at Victory Gardens. Photo by Michael Courier.

Hunter contrasts birth with its inevitable opposite. Elderly resident Etta (Mary Ann Thebus) abides here mainly to care for her 91-year-old husband Gerald (William Norris), a former distinguished music professor whose senility and dementia prevent him from understanding the art he adores, or even recognizing the woman he loved. Sheltering in the past, Etta recalls how before drifting into sleep each night they’d say “See you in the future,” but right now that time seems rather unreliable. Observing them all with deadpan resignation, Tom (Ernest Perry Jr.) prefers to watch TV (he long ago wised up to the self-defeating folly of jigsaw puzzles), demand dinner when he’s hungry, and hope they can all just shut up. He’s particularly irritated when everyone thinks Gerald has wandered off again—this time into a raging blizzard.

Ernest Perry, Jr. in Samuel D. Hunter’s REST at Victory Gardens. Photo by Michael Courier.

A power failure ups the ante on the action, along with goofy, comic-relief complications like an automatic door that opens randomly but not when needed, an unheated dining room that forces them to eat in the parlor, and a shortage of supplies. Anyway, Hunter’s main concern is to rather contrivedly balance life against death to show, well, what we already know but still need to feel—that folks find themselves by helping others, not pleasing their own insatiable egos.

MaryAnn Thebus and Amanda Drinkall in Samuel D. Hunter’s REST at Victory Gardens. Photo by Michael Courier.

Heartfelt interaction is the name of Hunter’s game and Schultz has found the right cast to make truisms fresh and compassion contagious. Thebus, a maternal and nurturing presence even when she’s not intoning her melodious Southern accent, gives Etta a resilience even in her memory-mining that speaks volumes. Norris quickly establishes the husband’s desperation to connect, though the mind’s fog is pea soup-thick. As sardonic old Tom, Perry drily cuts through the chatter, as much to prove he’s alive as to get his way.

Amanda Drinkall and McKenzie Chinn in Samuel D. Hunter’s REST at Victory Gardens. Photo by Michael Courier.

Playing the staff, Key’s Jeremy is winsome as the overwhelmed operator, Chinn’s hard-hoping Ginny is as frustrated as driven, and Drinkall’s warily pregnant Faye suggests all the tension of a mother who mustn’t love the kid she bears.

Seldom descending to condescension or cuteness (despite the opening night claque that wanted to find the geezers hilarious and the situations comic), Rest delivers a sometimes bracing look at love and loss, its familiarity never quite congealing into contempt.

photos by Michael Courier

Rest
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tues – Fri at 7:30; Sat at 4 & 7:30; Sun at 3
scheduled to end on October 12, 2014
for tickets, call 773.871.3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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