Steppenwolf’s Visiting Edna: Despite the Charm of Television, the Story Doesn’t Quite Gel

Murphy and Barford. Photos by Michael Brosilow. Murphy and Barford. Photos by Michael Brosilow. On the surface, Visiting Edna, the new David Rabe play at Steppenwolf Theatre, is a story of aging Edna, beset by diabetes, arthritis, congestive heart failure and cancer. Plus she’s had a colostomy with its requisite requirements. Despite her physical decline, Edna (Debra Monk) is cheerful as she waits for the visit of her middle-aged son, Andrew (Ian Barford). That visit is the central storyline of the play, set in a small midwestern apartment in the 1990s. A son whose job and family are on the other side of the country visiting his infirm mother. Edna hobbles around, wanting to be sure Andrew has enough to eat and drink and that he’s comfortable sitting in his late father’s recliner chair. Does he want to watch a little TV? Occasionally they lapse into family baby talk. Visiting Edna is a world premiere at Steppenwolf. It’s a story, alternately sad and funny, about a mother and son trying to make a connection or regain their past. Monk and Barford. Monk and Barford. Edna and Andrew take a day trip to Iowa City so Edna can see a medical specialist. The diagnosis isn’t what she hopes for plus they get lost and have a flat tire. Nevertheless, Edna is happy spending the day with Andrew. “I’m gonna remember this day. It was one of the best days ever.” A sweet, poignant story, you’re thinking? But how can this possibly end without Mom shuffling off this mortal coil? Visiting Edna may seem a little close for comfort if you’re part of a similar relationship. But what differentiates the play from a soap opera is a few wry and witty character additions. The playbill calls them Actor One, Actor Two and Actor Three. Actor One is a character named Television. Sally Murphy comes on stage first to inform us that she’ll be portraying Television to the best of her abilities. That’s what the playwright wrote. Clad in black with white collar and cuffs, she perches on a TV stand and wears a rabbit-ears antenna headband. When Edna or Andrew uses the remote to turn on Television or change channels, she is delighted and offers new dialogue for each channel. When Edna mutes the TV, her mouth moves without sound. Occasionally she flirts with Andrew. Television is altogether bubbly and delightful and you feel sorry for her when she’s turned off. She tries to lure them to turn Television on by announcing the schedule. “There’s Tom and Jerry. Full House. Happy Days. And Seinfeld. Seinfeld is barely started.” 3cr-edna-1a Monk, Barford and Murphy. Actor Two is a character named Cancer. Tim Hopper, also dressed in black, confirms to Edna that she should be depressed about her illness. “It’s a dark hole you’re in, Edna. Everything dissolving, fading, disappearing. You know it. I know it.” He appears after she says her prayers to be sure she worries in the dark of night. He tells Andrew, “You look tired. Stressed and worried. Secretive, like me…. I am despised and called malignant…. I’d like you too, Andrew. I’ll take you, if I get the chance.” And Cancer laments “I wish you still smoked..” But Actor One says, “what good is brooding when you could be watching Smokey and the Bandit?” And there’s Actor Three, an act two surprise. No spoilers. David Rabe’s whimsical character additions save Visiting Edna from being maudlin, but the play’s good intentions just don’t quite gel into a coherent, moving story. Director Anna D. Shapiro’s direction is smooth but a little too tentative, given the length of the script. The play is 20-30 minutes too long and act one seems like the place to cut. Both Barford and Monk give realistic, moving portrayals as Andrew and Edna. Murphy and Hopper are also fine as Actors One and Two. David Zinn’s set design is a realistic kitchen/living room with family photos and kids’ artwork magnetized to the refrigerator and family portraits everywhere. The set opens above to a sky vista with no clear purpose. Is it supposed to suggest Edna’s next destination? Visiting Edna continues at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through November 6. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday. Tickets for $20-89 are available online or by calling 312-335-1650.
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.