David Roberts, Chief New York Critic
The nature-nurture psychological debate and the predestined-free will theological debate collide in Bess Wohl’s “Make Believe” currently running at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, resulting in the brave and somewhat disturbing exploration of the blurred boundaries between what is perceived to be real life and what is perceived to be make-believe. The playwright raises several enduring questions, including whether there is a difference between make-believe and real life or if they are perhaps the same phenomenon, and whether one can ever escape the specter of dysfunction and childhood trauma.
“Make Believe” begins in the 1980s in the attic (a stunning and expansive design by David Zinn) of the Conlee family home, the playroom of the four Conlee children aged 5 to 12 years old. The children’s playlist alternates between typical children’s games and the more serious role-playing of the Conlee family that reveals the intricacies of the family’s dysfunction. “Make Believe” is not just another play about a dysfunctional family. Bess Wohl scrapes away at the underbelly of the dysfunction, carefully revealing the provenance of the Conlee family’s fractured and pernicious family system. This revelation begins when the children realize they have been abandoned in the attic of their family home and when one of them, Chris, decides to act.
In these family make-believe role-plays, older brother Chris (an intense and mysterious Ryan Foust) and older sister Kate (a determined and astute Maren Heary) play husband and wife and Dad and Mom to their younger siblings Addie (an introspective and imaginative Casey Hilton) and Carl (a lonely and somewhat ignored Harrison Fox) who is most often assigned the role of family dog. As the family pet, it is worth noting that Carl doesn’t speak much – something that will become relevant later on in the second half of the play (thirty-five years later) when four adults appear in the same attic with the same names, apparently to escape the repast downstairs following a funeral service at church.
In the first forty minutes of “Make Believe,” under Michael Greif’s careful direction, the young cast of four successfully provides the needed exposition for the success of the final 40 minutes populated by the adults. The children’s make-believe parallels the reality of their lives and their make-believe morphs into a twisted and sardonic reality. These are children older beyond their years. Their “family meals” with plastic food and dinnerware become shockingly real when Chris comes home with not only candy but bags of food.
Where he got the money to buy the food is revealed in the second half with the grim discovery disclosed by his adult namesake (a solid and deeply reflective Kim Fischer) who is attending the same funeral. Where Chris Conlee might be during this gathering needs to be discovered by the audience but he’s not in the attic during this unfortunate reunion where the audience discovers that the trauma the children experienced has had a deleterious effect on their adult lives.
At the funeral, the adult Kate (Samantha Mathis - a successful gastroenterologist living in Seattle - drinks a lot of wine and needs sedatives to make it through the day just as the child Kate imitated her mother’s often inebriated presence. The young Kate reveals overhearing her mother say, “she wishes their father were dead” and the older Kate has filed for divorce. Similar parallels are disclosed for Addie (a broken but hopeful Susannah Flood) and for Carl (a distracted and depressed Brad Heberlee). Being alone in the attic as children because one’s mother left you while your father was on a “business trip” can have deep psychosocial consequences. But do these consequences totally define the dysfunction of adulthood? Chris, the surprise guest at the funeral, serves as a foil to the belief that one cannot escape the trauma of one’s past. How is this Chris related to Chris Conlee and will his surprise revelation give the Conlees a second chance at redemption and release? Will there be catharsis for the audience?
“Make Believe” features Kim Fischer, Susannah Flood, Ryan Foust, Harrison Fox, Maren Heary, Brad Heberlee, Casey Hilton, and Samantha Mathis.
The creative team for “Make Believe” includes David Zinn (scenic design), Emilio Sosa (costume design), Ben Stanton (lighting design), and Bray Poor (original music and sound). Justin Scribner serves as production stage manager.
“Make Believe” runs at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater (305 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue) through Sunday September 22, 2019. Tickets are available by calling the Second Stage Box Office at 212-246-4422, visiting the company’s website, www.2ST.com or at the Tony Kiser Theater Box Office. Running time is 80 minutes without intermission.
Photo: Casey Hilton, Ryan Foust, Maren Heary, and Harrison Fox in “Make Believe.” Credit: Joan Marcus.