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The Fall to Earth

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

In his new play, Joel Drake Johnson has provided the role of a lifetime for a friend of his youth, Rondi Reed, who went to high school with him downstate. In fact her performance is so richly nuanced and gloriously unsettling that it disguises most of the script's occasional flaws. Combined with Rick Snyder's whip-smart staging and equally compelling (if less titanic) performances from the two other women in the show, this play marks Johnson as an able chronicler of middle American denial and neuroses.

Reed is Fay, a frumpy and talkative mother from a small midwestern town who's traveled with her tightly coiled grown daughter, Rachel, to an unidentified burg in the mountains. They're there to identify the remains of Fay's son and Rachel's brother, Kenny, who blew his brains out with a shotgun in a cheap motel. In Fay's view, she's there instead of Kenny's father--a Vietnam vet--because, as she proudly declares more than once, "I can take it."

And indeed our first impression of Fay is of an annoying, somewhat flighty, but tough and lovable mama bear. Sure, she has boundary issues--most mothers probably wouldn't go through their adult daughters' suitcases and sniff their bras. And she's incapable of doing anything without first informing Rachel what she's going to do, telling her about it as she's doing it, and then pointing out that she's done it. But once we learn the purpose of their trip together, it becomes easier to forgive Fay. We even wonder whether Rachel--initially given a bitter edge by Cheryl Graeff--isn't being a bit hard on her grieving mom. When the second scene shifts to a police station, it's a relief that Terry, the policewoman who discovered Kenny's body, exhibits some compassion for Fay.

In Sarah Charipar's forthright and sympathetic portrayal, Terry is the fulcrum between Fay and Rachel, the sympathetic arm they both can cling to. She bonds with Rachel over photos of the latter's son, then inadvertently contributes to the mother-daughter tension by telling Fay about them when Rachel had earlier denied they existed. Terry also paints a poignant picture of Kenny's final days: drinking heavily and working a shit job, he got into a lot of fights, Terry says, but was still a sweet guy who talked a lot about his successful big sis in Chicago.

Johnson has set up his characters so well, in such beautifully subtle detail, that it's disappointing when he tips his hand too early, in a transition from the police station back to the hotel room that suggests both Kenny's final moments and his true relationship with his mom. The scene packs a wallop, but once it's over the subsequent revelations are a letdown--we see them coming when they should be sucker punches.

What Johnson does provide is a deeply satisfying opportunity to look back at Fay and Rachel's first moments onstage and reconstruct them. An anecdote about Fay's determined extermination of a bat that flew into their house when the kids were small no longer seems a tale of bravery but an exhibition of cruelty. And her litany of "I can take this, your dad can't" carries with it a dark subtext: she may or may not be able to take it, but she sure as hell can dish it out. But Johnson is too solid a writer--and Reed too sublime an actress--to simplistically turn Fay from grief-addled loving mom to a monster belatedly stricken by guilt. Here Graeff provides the yin to Reed's yang--as the stuffing begins to fly out of the older woman in the play's painful final moments, Rachel becomes hollow-eyed, shrunken, and defensive, reverting to postures she presumably learned in childhood.

In Snyder's sure-handed staging, Rachel and Fay's near farcical first entrance--Fay can't figure out how to use the hotel key card and won't let Rachel help her--is smoothly integrated with the final tableau of emotional exhaustion. And Jack Magaw's perfect hotel room, with its generic brightness and order, virtually entraps them in artificial comfort. Unfortunately Johnson throws in a few unnecessary details, like Terry's revelation that Kenny's "fights" were the result of being gay bashed. This twist doesn't provide much additional insight, instead diverting attention from Johnson's more compelling examination of how children can be marked for success or failure early in life.

More essential is Terry's deep concern about her learning-disabled son, whose patterns seem to echo those of Kenny's early years. And eventually it's clear that Rachel dreads turning into the same kind of mother she had. Indeed, Johnson's closing image calls to mind the final stanza of "This Be the Verse," Philip Larkin's poem on the dysfunctions passed down through generations: "Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf. / Get out as early as you can, / And don't have any kids yourself." Under such circumstances, it's a testament to Reed's powerful connection with the script that even at the end we, like Rachel, can't completely escape or despise Fay.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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