Theatre in Review: Take Me Back (Kindling Theatre Company/Walkerspace)
A young man's life unravels over the course of a single day in Take Me Back, by Emily Schwend, who should be added to your list of names to remember. We are in a kitchen in Muskogee, Oklahoma, belonging to Sue, a school lunch worker in late middle age. Sue is a diabetic, but she can't be bothered to take care of herself; instead, she prefers to while away the day on the couch, soaking up whatever the Game Show Network has to offer and gorging on the candies she has hidden around the house. Her adult son, Bill, attends to her in near-saintly fashion -- shopping for healthy groceries, reminding her that sugar-free cookies are not a good choice, and nudging her to check her blood sugar once a day.
You wouldn't call it an idyllic picture, but it seems fairly stable -- except that it isn't half the story. Bill, who is recently out of prison, is a master of bad decisions and poor impulse control. (He was ousted from the Army on a DUI charge and responded by trying to steal thousands of dollars worth of tools from the US Government.) With his record, he can't get a job, so for quick cash, he has boosted a cache of Mac Pro laptops from the local Best Buy, which he plans to fence -- as soon as he gets his truck fixed.
As may be clear by now, Bill is both reckless and feckless, a combination that doesn't bode well for his future. Things are further complicated when Julie, his ex-girlfriend, shows up; having settled for something less than married bliss with another man, she drops by for a second look at the guy she left behind. Julie is in town for her brother's wedding; bored and lonely, she agrees to a midnight rendezvous with Bill, even agreeing to sneak in through his bedroom window, as they did when they were adolescents, so as not to disturb Sue. But then a malicious next door neighbor, with a relative on the police force, throws a monkey wrench into Bill's plans, and he must face the reality that for him there is no going back.
Take Me Back could play as a thriller, but, perhaps because of its southern location, this is a tragedy that unfolds by degrees, as Bill struggles to handle a situation that is rapidly slipping out of control. At first, it's easy to be distracted by Schwend's leisurely pace, but she is meticulous about construction, carefully laying a foundation that allows us to care what happens to Bill, Julie, and Sue. She also writes scenes -- real, complex, knotty confrontations -- that bare the emptiness in their lives. You see it in Julie's out-of-left-field visit, in which she slowly, casually reveals the dissatisfaction she feels, all the while insisting that it is no big deal. It's there when Julie, suddenly waking up from her flirtation with the past, is forced to make Bill see that they have no future together. You feel it most strongly when dotty, doting Sue suddenly vents a lifetime's worth of worry and frustration over Bill's pattern of self-destructive acts.
Schwend is lucky to have the services of a fine director, Jay Stull, and a first-rate cast who inhabit the darker corners of her drama like longtime residents. Bill is the kind of guy who pretends that any situation is manageable, no matter what, a quality that James Kautz captures neatly, only occasionally letting the pressure out in a sudden outburst. He partners beautifully with Boo Killebrew's Julie, who always tries to put a good face on things, a habit that conceals a much tougher woman underneath. Their carefully choreographed, tellingly detailed flirtation is shot through with understated passion mixed with a powerful sadness and occasional bursts of recrimination; only in their late 20s, they are already looking back at their lives, wondering what went wrong. Charlotte Booker's Sue is warm, touching, and thoroughly irritating, the kind of woman you want to kiss one moment and strangle the next. Speaking in a drawl that can turn into a glass-shattering wail, distracting herself from any fundamental problem with another episode of The Newlywed Game, and pointedly ignoring anything like good advice, she is the true mother to the troubled man that Bill has become. Booker is especially gripping when, near the end, she drops the dizzy, doting mother pose and reveals the exhausted, deeply disappointed woman within. Jay Eisenberg is a tough, tense presence as Bill's increasingly unwilling accomplice, who wants to call the whole thing off before it is too late.
This is a play where a sense of place really matters, and the set designers, Greg Kozatek and George Hoffmann, have delivered a kitchen/living room that looks like it was airlifted from Muskogee, with a box-filled attic hovering above the action. Nick Houfek's lighting design creates a variety of looks, many of them tied to the day's dying sunlight, and Amy Altadonna's sound design includes the sound of traffic passing by as well as birdsong. (No costume designer is credited.)
It all adds up to a steadily absorbing study of the shattered dreams of a foolish young man, surrounded by loved ones who have hardly made better choices themselves. As a bulletin from a heartland where opportunities and a sense of purpose are sadly lacking, Take Me Back is dismaying, yet thoroughly convincing. As an introduction to a talented new writer, it's an invigorating sign of hope.--David Barbour