Edward and Rebecca were married once, now they’re divorced. He’s seeing a woman named Tina, whom he’s in the process of disenchanting; she’s remarried, to Roger, a foppish English emigre who runs drug tests for pharmaceutical companies and wooed her on a cruise to Nova Scotia. Before they broke up (actually, before they were even married), Edward and Rebecca produced Susannah, aka Sukey, who matured into something of a monster: “She was brutal,” Edward recalls. “And mean. Cutting up clothes, burning holes in things. That’s meticulous. You have to want that.”
Sukey recently turned up dead on a beach, a suicide. William Donnelly’s No Wake throws Rebecca, Edward, and Roger together at the funeral.
Ooh, you think to yourself. What a juicy setup: Old love! Anger! Sorrow! Guilt! I can’t wait to see what happens. You’re especially excited because the play is getting its midwest premiere from Route 66 Theatre Company, a solid actors’ troupe. All three cast members—Lia Mortensen as Rebecca, Stef Tovar as Edward, Raymond Fox as Roger—are pros boasting excellent chops. And director Kimberly Senior is coming off a string of career triumphs, including the Broadway production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced and one of the best Hedda Gablers I’ve ever seen, done two seasons ago at Writers Theater in Glencoe.
So why is the show such a disappointment? Despite everything it’s got going for it, No Wake has no heft. In fact, it conveys an appalling emotional tone deafness at times. Imagine Iphigenia in Aulis, with its tortured parents and doomed daughter, updated by Neil Simon.
The problem starts with Donnelly’s script, which takes an oblique approach to Edward and Rebecca’s grief. Edward cultivates a comic, slacker persona, enhanced by an appetite for alcohol so strong that he keeps a full fifth of Jameson in his carry-on bag. Throughout, we get the vague but strong suggestion that his desire for a smooth vibe contributed greatly to the train wreck his family became. Rebecca makes gestures toward confronting him at first, hoping to clear the air, but the truth is she likes his sad-sack style. That plus 80-proof lubricants seem to constitute their bandwidth, and they fall into it in a practiced, easy way.
The challenge for Senior and company is to pull the dark subtext out of the exes’ superficially flip manner. That challenge doesn’t get met. In those rare moments when the production pushes past blithe humor, it ends up coming to rest in sentimentality, never finding the Pinterian danger that would make No Wake psychologically comprehensible, much less compelling. Tovar and Mortensen tear up from time to time, sure, but what the situation calls for is an off-key nastiness that isn’t forthcoming. Crookedness. Ugliness. Narcissism. At one point Rebecca and Edward ask themselves the very reasonable question “How did you create a child who despises you?” and, naturally, come up bollixed. Even if the answer isn’t in their dialogue, though, it should be onstage somewhere, signaling through the haze of affability.
Nor does it help that Fox’s Roger is a wanly ridiculous, paper-thin figure out of some lost Wodehouse story, whose one mighty assertion is played entirely for laughs. Again, he needs to be at least as serious as he is ludicrous.
But I have a feeling that No Wake wouldn’t be anybody’s idea of a masterpiece even if Senior had found the right tone for it. One of Edward’s big admissions is that Sukey’s death came as a relief to him—par for the course in the annals of parental self-flagellation. And Rebecca grows fuzzier rather than sharper as the play progresses, surrendering her resentments all too easily. A far more powerful exploration of the same family dynamic was Rory Kinnear’s The Herd, which ran at Steppenwolf Theatre last summer under the direction of Frank Galati. The difference? Three things: a terrible anger, a terrible humor, a terrible willingness to be cruel. v