In David Rabe’s new play, the end is only the beginning. “Visiting Edna” opens with a sad inevitability: Edna (Debra Monk) is on the verge of succumbing to old age, aggravated by advanced conditions of heart disease and cancer. Death creeps so near that her middle-aged son Andrew (Ian Barford) reluctantly flies into town to spend a few last days with Edna in her lonely apartment. But there is no bonding or easy reconciliation between them. This is Rabe’s world, a place of bald self-interest, self-assertion and self-exploration. Instead, Edna and Andrew engage each other in a passive-aggressive hurly-burly of conflict and competition.
And they’re not the only “people” at selfish odds in this story. Actor One (Sally Murphy), a humanized television, keeps trying to goad Edna and Andrew into mindless escapism. Why relate to one another when you can while away the hours watching reruns of “Seinfeld”? Actor Two (Tim Hopper), Edna’s cancer, encourages her to surrender to dulling despair. This insistent, soft-spoken malignancy is like a predatory salesperson who never leaves her side, who insinuates himself into her very being. But the ultimate interest becomes Actor Three (Michael Rabe), Edna’s guardian angel, who insists she must abandon cancer, television and Andrew for death and a higher cause—his cause (whatever that may be).
How does Rabe maintain audience interest for a wordy “self”-centered piece that’s more than two-and-a-half hours when everyone already knows the ending? Partly he creates secondary characters who provide a tragically funny and creative view into some of the things that distract us from considering the meaning of our lives. But mostly he relies on superb performances from the two principals, Monk and Barford. Monk vividly captures the no-nonsense, emotionally shriveled, nakedly vulnerable woman whom Rabe’s dialogue conveys. Meanwhile, Barford stirringly crosses a wide swath of emotion as he goes from detached in the first act to devastated at the end. He grieves deeply—as much for himself as his departed mother.
That may be the ultimate insight of Rabe’s provocative new exercise: Our obsession with ourselves never ends—or at least not until we do. (Michael Amedeo)
Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted, (312)335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$89. Through November 6.