Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Make Believe is unsettling, uncomfortable and does not offer a sense of redemption. The production itself is topnotch, and the cast uniformly terrific, but, with no sense of catharsis by the conclusion, it feels disorienting without any real insight into the characters. This is a play that can stay with you for a long time, though it is somewhat hard to take.
The curtain is up when the show starts and the audience can see a child's playroom, wonderfully designed by Antje Ellermann, with many posters from the 1980s on the walls. The young actors gradually enter the stage, and all four are excellent. Playing Addie, Alexa Skye Swinton is very dignified and her character seems mature for her age. As Addie's sister Kate, Sloane Wolfe is also quite good; the interaction between the two girls is playful.
However, all is not right in the home of these children. There is clearly no parental guidance and any hope that an adult will appear is in vain. As Chris, the real leader in the quartet of children, Roman Malenda is strong and Chris seems to be the one who, ultimately, takes care of the others. The adorable R. J. Vercellone, who plays Carl, is often seen acting like a dog and it is clear that he is the youngest of the four.
Playwright Wohl often gives the children dialogue and actions that are very adult in nature. The first half of Make Believe almost plays like a disturbing fantasy, but it becomes apparent in the second half that everything that goes on with these children is very real.
Not to give too much of the plot away, but the second part of the show presents the children as adults. One of the real gifts of director Jackson Gay is that she has successfully guided the young actors and their grown-up counterparts in a way that makes it believable and plausible that these children have become these adults. As the grown-up Kate, Megan Byrne does very well in presenting her abrasive and troubled character, and she proves to be touching. Matching her is Molly Ward as the adult Addie, a woman who is an actress and a mother. Wohl is skillful in showing how this character, who was severely neglected in her childhood, has potentially passed her problems onto a new generation.
Brad Heberlee is fine as the grown-up Carl, who delivers the most prominent monologue in the play and exhibits behavior that harkens back to young Carl. Significantly, the most "normal" of the adult characters is the one who is an outsider to the family, the talented Chris Ghaffari, who plays Chris, a friend of one of the siblings. It is apparent from his bright presence onstage and his hopeful manner, that Chris did not grow up in this household.
Playwright Bess Wohl is adept at creating this family unit, even if the result is an unsettling sense of loss, with little in the way of a redeeming feeling to take away from viewing this grim family portrait.
Make Believe, through September 30, 2018, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St, Hartford CT. For tickets, please visit www.hartfordstage.org or call the box office at 860-527-5151.