Drawing War

Chicago Dramatists

By Albert Williams

Brett Neveu’s new drama, Drawing War, doesn’t sound much like the works of O’Neill, Miller, Williams, Albee, or Shepard. There are no long, arcing speeches or exquisite poetic passages, no passionate sermonizing or profanity-packed or mythopoeic outpourings. The characters in this compact, carefully modulated two-act speak in terse, simple sentences: “I’m going for a walk.” “I understand your point of view.” “It’s nice to be home.”

Yet in the tradition of The Iceman Cometh, All My Sons, A Streetcar Named Desire, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Buried Child, Neveu’s play exposes festering secrets barely masked by a facade of normality, family, and friendship. Set on one long Christmas day in a small town somewhere in the midwest, Drawing War charts the actions of a seemingly typical family, the Brauns, as they plod through the rituals of the holiday: going to services, opening presents, visiting relatives, exchanging Christmas cookies with the neighbors, paying respects at the grave of a loved one. But as the Brauns travel from church to home to the cemetery to the nursing home where a grandmother stricken by Alzheimer’s lives, with occasional stops at McDonald’s, Neveu gradually reveals clues about a tragedy that’s isolated each member of the family from the others, leaving them to nurse their guilt and grief privately. Dad displays symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, carefully folding wrapping paper before throwing it away. Mom talks to herself, recounting tales of ghostly apparitions, and is devoted to radical antiabortion activism, a cause that’s already earned her jail time and is likely to earn her more. “I’m doing this for the children,” she insists. Jeff, the teenage son, observes his parents with what seems typical appalled adolescent alienation. (“Oh my god, are my folks really this weird?”) Yet he carries perhaps the greatest pain of any of them, expressed in a climactic confession, one of the play’s rare outbursts of emotion.

What’s eating away at the Brauns is the death of the younger son, Matt, from a gunshot wound. Was the death a suicide? An accident? A murder? All three suggestions are made at different points in the play. None is conclusive, and neither is the piece of evidence Mr. Braun finds among Matt’s belongings–a picture he scrawled in school depicting a bloody battlefield populated by dismembered stick figures. It’s this cartoon carnage that gives Drawing War its title. Was the picture a sign of Matt’s morbid tendencies, unobserved by his parents and disregarded by his seventh-grade classmate Chad Udelhoven as the kind of thing all boys drew? Ironically, Chad downplays the significance of this tangible sign while fretting over his own far-fetched theory: that he and some other kids accidentally put a curse on Matt by playing a party game called Light as a Feather, pretending to cause Matt’s death with psychic power.

Told in concise, self-contained vignettes, Drawing War addresses hot-button issues: teen suicide, kids and guns, antiabortion militancy. But it does so with enigmatic understatedness and quirky, low-key humor, eschewing political preachments and social or psychological theorizing. Neveu focuses not on what happened or why, nor on what will happen, but rather on what’s happening now: his characters’ immediate interactions, their occasional eruptions of emotion, and the long, numbing lulls of routine that define their lives. Written with a detached compassion that recalls Chekhov and presented with an air of mystery that suggests the early plays of Pinter or even the films of Ingmar Bergman, this is a slice-of-life sketch that takes the viewer some days to work through–and to get over.

Sensitively directed by Russ Tutterow, this world premiere features finely etched performances. Robert W. Behr is Mr. Braun, resolutely trying to keep the peace in his fragmenting clan; Suellen Burton is his wife, a good woman pulling away from her family with a steely aloofness that grows over the course of the play; Kate Winters is Grandma, urgently babbling sentences that don’t quite make sense. High school sophomore Justin Cholewa, making a strong professional debut as Chad, conveys a perfect adolescent mix of eagerness to please and anxious discomfort. Most impressive is Loyola University junior Philip Dawkins as Jeff: though most of the play focuses on the adults, seeming to relegate him to the sidelines, ultimately Drawing War is Jeff’s story, and Dawkins clearly and credibly conveys the boy’s steadily building emotional turmoil. Ann Davis’s abstract set–a cave constructed of parachute silk, beautifully lit by Jeff Pines–enhances the play’s sense of mystery; Chris J. Johnson’s sound design ranges from spooky electronic music to cheesy easy-listening renditions of Christmas standards.

Drawing War isn’t a big play–indeed, it might have been even more effective as a one-act. But audiences looking for intimate, well-crafted drama by an impressive emerging writer should find this a richly satisfying evening.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.