Chicago Theater Review: NO WAKE (Route 66 Theatre Company at Greenhouse Theater Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 11, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

BAGGAGE HANDLING

Unprocessed pain can supply grist enough for a playwright’s mill. But an unprocessed play is a lot less. Alas, there’s little design for loving in William Donnelly’s No Wake, its plot almost an exact replica of Noël Coward’s famous 1933 comedy.

Stef Tovar, Lia Mortensen and Raymond Fox in Route 66 Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of NO WAKE by William Donnelly, directed by Kimberly Senior. Photo by Brandon Dahlquist.

Deficient at supplying the psychological context for its emotional payoff, this 80-minute one-act, richly shaped in Kimberley Senior’s Midwest premiere for Route 66 Theatre Company, exactly mirrors the plot of Design for Living: Former spouses who want to “catch up” but also “want to be done [with it all]” get another go at love. But here an extra burden separates them. It’s the death of Sukie, the sulky, “sick” daughter who apparently hated them enough to kill herself to avoid them completely. Ironically, No Wake creatively reverses the usual expectation: Rather than let a couple’s love for their kids overcome their divisions, Sukie’s loss, once purged of regret and survivor guilt, paves the way for a sardonic second chance.

Stef Tovar and Raymond Fox in Route 66 Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of NO WAKE by William Donnelly, directed by Kimberly Senior. Photo by Brandon Dahlquist.

Edward (Stef Tovar) and Rebecca (Lia Mortensen) reunite at a wake for the daughter whose mental anguish and abrupt end are, frustratingly, left unexplained. Feeling “off,” they briefly engage in automatic recriminations over what, if anything, could have been done to prevent the tragedy. That blame game quickly over, free of any concept of culpability, they can now move on to the accommodation that precedes reconciliation.

But that means getting rid of Rebecca’s inconvenient new husband Roger (Raymond Fox). A British twit who supervises drug trials for a pharmaceutical company, he’s already been cuckolded so he knows the drill. He lives to lose and so he does. Equally insecure, Edward (“I piss in every pool”) believes he’s a magnet for misfortune. Rebecca, it seems, must choose between two zeros, and affairs seem at an “impasse.”

Stef Tovar and Lia Mortensen in Route 66 Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of NO WAKE by William Donnelly, directed by Kimberly Senior. Photo by Brandon Dahlquist.

But, Donnelly demonstrates, Edward presumably feels more pain over his defeatedness than does self-loathing Roger (who declares he’s “not a man,” neatly putting himself in his place). So, dropping his disposable girlfriend Tina, Edward gets the girl (back), since Rebecca belongs to the guy who needs her most. This amorous redemption still seems surprising: Just when Edward declares that he wants a life, like a lake, with “no wake” (serene uneventfulness), Rebecca reminds him that life is much more interesting when someone can stir you to the soul.

But, to reach this predictable point, No Wake puts very little at stake. This drama evaporates when it should boil. There’s little psychic backdrop to these characters, given the present-tense small talk that easily defines them, to make them matter much. That’s despite cunning performances from three masters of deception. Mortensen’s resilient Rebecca slyly plays one loser against the other. Indulging the stereotype of a weak and hapless English duffer, Fox effaces himself neatly as the odd spouse out. (Very paltry comic relief, the sitcom-silly fist fight between Edward and Roger is singularly unconvincing.) Tovar unpacks Edward’s baggage well and, if only because his self-pity isn’t as spineless as Roger’s, we like him a tad more than we don’t. (With this play that’s one of art’s little victories.)

Overall, the acting is persuasive enough. The blocking is less effective: All too inset, Brian Sidney Bembridge’s picture-frame set provides terrible sightlines for anyone sitting house right. Too often there’s no view for No Wake.

Lia Mortensen and Stef Tovar in Route 66 Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere of NO WAKE by William Donnelly, directed by Kimberly Senior. Photo by Brandon Dahlquist.

photos by Brandon Dahlquist

No Wake
Route 66 Theatre Company
The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs & Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8: Sun at 2
ends on February 7, 2016
for tickets, call 773.404.7336 or visit Greenhouse

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