Review: Laurie Metcalf Stars in Little Bear Ridge Road, a Powerful Comedy-Drama With Some Things To Say

In Chicago theater, the return of a great—not to mention famous—ensemble actor to the Steppenwolf Theatre Company is an event exciting enough to register on the Richter scale. Particularly when it's served on a fresh play from a great—not to mention famous—playwright and screenwriter.

Director Joe Mantello brings Samuel D. Hunter’s (The Whale, A Case for the Existence of God) new family comedy-drama Little Bear Ridge Road to Steppenwolf. Tony and Emmy-winning actor Laurie Metcalf leads the small cast with a compelling performance. The show’s true punch comes from Hunter’s script, which honestly and refreshingly explores issues of the day.

We start, and mostly remain, in Sarah Fernsby’s (Laurie Metcalf) living room, where she and her 30-something nephew Ethan (Micah Stock) discuss selling the home of his meth-addicted and recently deceased father. It’s early days into the coronavirus, Ethan’s future is uncertain after an MFA degree, the two haven’t seen each other in a long time, and though they don’t initially get along, Sarah insists Ethan stay with her until he sorts his life. Thus begins an odd-couple show unlike any you’ve seen before.

Featured ensemble member Laurie Metcalf, as expected, is excellent as Sarah Fernsby, a stubbornly independent woman living in rural-Idaho blight who, despite her abrasive demeanor, has a compassionate soul. Initial impressions could convince one she’s a stereotype—readers familiar with the “Cigarette Mom” meme will see similarities.

Laurie Metcalf (Sarah Fernsby), John Drea (James), and Micah Stock (Ethan Fernsby). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

But the power of Metcalf’s performance, matched with some interesting character development revealed later in the show, deflects simple interpretations. Metcalf doesn’t play Cigarette Mom; she plays a private woman thrown into several desperate crises. There’s a self-assured surface, but also an inner struggle which, because of the talent behind the writing and performance, is revealed to the audience in entirely believable yet surprising ways.     

No one is shocked Metcalf is a great performer, but readers may be relieved to know the rest of the cast matches her talent. Micah Stock’s Ethan is an overwhelmed, confused man whose anxious monologues compel from the audience fear and solicitude in equal measure. “The world’s already terrible,” he cries in an emotionally charged scene, “and it’s only going to get worse.”

By midway through the show he’s lived with his aunt a full year, changing plans, as so many of us did, to accommodate the coronavirus. He’s at a low point, and the audience feels his desperation in every sulk, in every stutter. Later he goes on a sort-of date with astrophysicist student James (John Drea). Samuel D. Hunter, following Bob Dylan’s plea that writers should “keep eyes wide,” paints a real and painfully familiar portrait of someone coming out of isolation and failing to socialize.

Laurie Metcalf (Sarah Fernsby) and Micah Stock (Ethan Fernsby). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Ethan can barely talk to his sort-of date, he’s so unused to casual interaction. This scene and others like it that depict the neurotic fallout of recent history makes the show not only great, but also important.   

Little Bear Ridge Road deals honestly and powerfully with contemporary issues, especially those related to the United States' broken medical system. The slow moving train wreck of the country's health is a difficult topic for art, perhaps because the antagonist's major weapon is tedium: waiting for test results, being put on hold, etc. If you don't think about enough, it's the stuff of dry comedy more so than tragedy. Yet the system destroys lives every. single. day. When those conflicts get their fair due on stage, the audience receives a special kind of comfort.

We see your pain, the artist says. It's real.

For example, when Ethan argues with a customer service rep about a hidden medical fee—an experience with which many Americans are all too familiar—Hunter is telling the audience that these common events are truly tragic, intense, jarring; that they are not, as we’re conditioned to think of them, just a part of life.

A new play, at its best, is a mirror. “Watch!” it says. “Look at where you are, what you’ve become.” Theater recontextualizes and explains the state of things. Which is doubly helpful when one lives with (gestures widely) this whole mess.

If Little Bear Ridge Road can be said to “do” anything for you, it may provide fresh words and images to sincerely confront our panicked reality. Especially in a zeitgeist where the reflexive response to tragedy seems to be ironic detachment—remember those jokes about the “Fauci Ouchie” and “The Before Times?”—we need shows like Little Bear Ridge Road to give us a more sincere script about our times.

I've sung the praises of the play, its direction and its performance. But I want to flag my single complaint about Little Bear Ridge Road, which centers on the set design. Scenic designer Scott Pask offers a minimalist approach. We have a white-carpeted stage with a white recliner couch and a sad ceiling fan. I don’t see how the story benefits from the sparse set and can think of no budgetary reason a company like Steppenwolf would have to work with a stripped stage.

The set seems to stifle the actors, who must at times make excuses for activity in a place that doesn’t really allow it. They have nowhere to go: no desks or tables or props. When they move around, which they must do to keep the show visually interesting, it doesn’t always make sense. They cross this way or that way, but to what and why? Directors often tell actors to "fill the space," though a little support from the set designer or props master would help.

Lighting design by Heather Gilbert and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel do enhance the production. Costumes are by Jessica Pabst. Laura D. Glenn is production stage manager.

Little Bear Ridge Road continues at Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 N Halsted St, thru August 4. Running time is 95 minutes without an intermission. Ticket prices range from $20 to $168.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Adam Kaz