Recommended *** Directed by Will Crouse, much the play’s content in Emily Schwend’s “Take Me Back,” rather like the play’s title, remains allusive, sometimes in affecting, but other times in ineffective ways in The Poor Theatre Company’s production. Bill (Dillion Kelleher), recently released from serving four years in prison for stealing goods from a military base and not his DUI conviction, cares for his increasingly ill and diabetic mother, Sue (Susan Monts-Bologna), who likes unhealthy food and sweets, and genuinely can’t distinguish between Sunny D and orange juice. His ex-girlfriend, Julie (Alex Fisher), returns to Oklahoma without her husband for a wedding, and Bill and her engage in a brief and un-intense, if severe flirtation, that makes him fantasize (briefly) about moving back with her to Texas. Meanwhile, he is plotting another crime that many would see as victimless but which would be punished with harsh penalties given Bill’s record, and he is all but sure to get caught: a fate to which he seems resigned whatever he may claim to the contrary.
The acting, dialogue, set (Alan Schwanke), and dialects (Adam Goldstein) sound and look colloquial and authentic, and the plot is realistic, but, like life, extremely slow. The show’s strength is the chemistry between Kelleher and Monts-Bologna. They convey a deep love for each other, and are convincing as mother and son. Monts-Bologna has the warmth and simplicity of a working class American, content to stay in Oklahoma, reminisce about her son as a small boy, and watch reruns of the newlyweds and other shows that preceded the onslaught of reality television, oblivious both to her own failing health and her son’s inexplicable continuing criminality. Kelleher gives an equally gifted performance: maintaining the tension between his genuine love and concern for his mother and recklessly setting out on a course which he knows will lead to prison. All the while, he conveys the impregnability of his character’s motivations and an intense, quiet suffering. Under Will Crouse’s direction, they situations are nowhere near parallel and they never become foils: she is ignorant of how bad her health really is, and he knows all too well where he is headed.
When Julie arrives, she clearly has a much stronger attachment to Sue than to Bill, and his flirtation with her, though extreme, and fantasy of moving to Texas to be near her and her husband, are not even sincere enough to be called half-hearted. In fact, though Fisher gives a perfectly fine performance as Julie—giving the sense of the weary unhappiness of a woman whose domestic situation may not be as happy as Bill and Sue’s, her character’s arrival threatens to distract from that mother-son which is this production’s chief asset.
Perhaps the title “Take Me Back” adds to the play’s confusion because whether it refers to nostalgia, forgiveness, or both neither are central tenants of the play. The characters are not concerned with the metaphysics or ethics of life: acceptance of it and absolution of past failings appear completely automatic. They are simply living out life as it is interrupted by crime, illness, marriage, and very slight social change (Sue complains that term now starts in the August and that children have been given the option of bringing cold lunches, and not the meals she prepares for them as a cook in the public school system—it would have been difficult to tell when the play was set without the use of I-phones in one scene). Bill may fantasize about a different life, but it is just that: a fantasy, and it would be a different life. He is not trying to return to anything or anyone; he already has come home to his mother who is delighted to have him around, and the only place he may be going back to is jail.
The blocking is can be fairly lethargic—which is certainly is Shwend’s tone, but Crouse might have moved the actors more creatively to build up a higher degree of tension; after all, the stakes here are pretty high however realistic and common the situation is. Conversely, the lighting (Mickie Marie) could have done more to create a sense of summer and Oklahoma, although this is achieved effectively with props (Mealah Heidenreich) and costumes (Delia Ridenour), but Marie’s lighting has to be credited with an impressive technical feat in which Bill stays awake through an entire night waiting for the final blow. It gives a completely realistic sense of evening passing into night than morning in a short amount of time.
Ultimately, this is a chance to watch two extremely gifted performances, an interesting dynamic, and some convincing technical work (directed by Michael Rathbun) at a reasonable price. It is also utterly convincing as an all too realistic slice of Americana, but one gets the sense that a script that mirrors life’s banal realities (even its harsh ones) would have worked better as an art-house film where slow plots can be mitigated by angles and techniques not available to actors, directors, or playwrights.
Take Me Back runs through August 8, 2015 with performances Friday and Saturday’s at 7:30 pm. and Sundays at 2:00. The performance Saturday August 2nd will also be at 2:00 pm with no evening performance. The production takes place in the Pentagon Collaboraction’s Room located on the third floor of the Flat Iron Arts Building which is located at 1579 N. Milwaukee Avenue and which can be a maze, so arrive early. Regular Tickets are $16 and Student and industry Tickets are $11 when purchased on line. $15 and $10 when purchased at the door. Thursday July 30th and Thursday August 6th are designated as “pay what you can” performances. They can be purchased at http://www.thepoortheatre.org/. The play runs an hour and thirty minutes without intermission.
“Take Me Back” runs through August 8, 2015 with performances Friday and Saturday’s at 7:30 pm. and Sundays at 2:00. The performance Saturday August 2nd will also be at 2:00 pm with no evening performance. The production takes place in the Pentagon Collaboraction’s Room located on the third floor of the Flat Iron Arts Building which is located at 1579 N. Milwaukee Avenue and which can be a maze, so arrive early. Regular Tickets are $16 and Student and industry Tickets are $11 when purchased on line. $15 and $10 when purchased at the door. Thursday July 30th and Thursday August 6th are designated as “pay what you can” performances. They can be purchased at http://www.thepoortheatre.org/. The play runs an hour and thirty minutes without intermission.
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