Rivendell Theater Ensemble is staging the midwest premiere of William Francis Hoffman’s Cal in Camo, a stark, sharp story of a woman struggling to bond with her newborn, the long-lost brother she draws back into her life and the family home in rural Sterling, Illinois, that’s literally sinking into the ground it sits on.
Directed by Hallie Gordon and presented at RTE’s storefront theater in Edgewater, the small space only adds to the sense of Cal’s claustrophobia. The new stay-at-home mother struggles to breast feed and is unable to bond with the child. Her frustrations collide with those of her struggling beer-salesman husband, Tim, and early in the play she confesses to him that she’s flying in her brother, Flynt, who just lost his wife in a flood.
Over the course of an hour and change (sans intermission), we witness Cal (Ashley Neal) crumble even further into despair and discover context about her background—the mother who abandoned her, the foster homes she grew up in—that reveals a complex woman one layer at a time. Neal’s performance is brave, to be sure; it’s a shame, then, that the script she’s working with doesn’t allow Cal a more developed sense of character. Most of the reveals about her childhood come too late in the play to shape our sense of her, and though a woman’s postpartum struggles are nothing to minimize, it’s difficult to root for a woman we hardly know.
To that end, the mid-show scene between brothers-in-law, as Flynt (an exceptional Keith Kupferer) and Tim (Eric Slater) bond over beer and guns and the like, is both the best part of the play and its most perplexing. For a production that’s supposed to center around Cal (this isn’t “Flynt in Camo,” after all), this extended scene between the two men, striking as it is, removes us entirely from her story. Thankfully, the whole thing gets back on track before the moving final scene; audiences leave the theater with Neal’s powerful final moments giving them much to think about.
Cal in Camo runs through February 17 at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge, with performances Thursday through Sunday. Tickets for $38 are available online here.