Footsteps Theatre Company

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Shay is like one of those “disease of the week” made-for-TV movies. The formula is simple: Take a disease that has been receiving a lot of publicity–Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps, or bulimia. Invent a character who has it, a few characters who are affected by the victim’s plight, and–presto–you have heartrending melodrama. Even if the dialogue is insipid and the plot feeble, the disease alone will still hold the attention of the audience. There’s a bit of hypochondria in us all.

In Shay, the main disease is agoraphobia–a fear of public places–but there’s also a subplot involving anorexia nervosa. The agoraphobic is Shay, a housewife who is so afraid of contact with people that she never leaves the house. Her husband brings home the groceries as well as a paycheck, so she has no need to go outside. And she never lets anyone else in except her two grown children and her sister Marce, who lives next door. If the phone rings, Shay ignores it unless two rings are followed by a pause and then a third ring–a code known to family members only. She never answers the door either. She conducts her business with the paperboy and others by means of notes left in the milk box.

By limiting her social contacts, Shay manages to function fairly well despite her fears.

But there’s trouble brewing. Shay’s daughter Fran is about to get married, and she desperately wants her mother to attend the wedding. Shay is equally determined to avoid it. Shay says she might show up for the ceremony, sit in the back of the church, and slip out during the benediction, but she cannot bear the thought of attending the reception and meeting all those people. She’s afraid that the anxiety will cause her to babble, and fill the silence with vapid or insulting comments. “When I’m alone, I’m total,” she says, trying to explain her preference for staying in the house. “I’m not rude, boring, or stupid.”

In preparation for the wedding, Fran has been popping diet pills and limiting herself to 900 calories a day in an effort to lose weight. “Did you ever know a fat person you took seriously?” she asks, defending her starvation regimen.

She also is hatching a plan to “cure” her mother’s fear of people. It’s Christmas day. Her brother Reg, a Treasury agent who always carries his gun and a pair of handcuffs, is already over for Christmas dinner, so Fran uses the opportunity to bring her fiance over to meet the family. It doesn’t work–Shay simply hides in the kitchen closet until the young man leaves. But Fran has arranged for her fiance to come back that evening with his parents in tow; their unannounced visit precipitates a crisis.

Perhaps a strong cast could wring a few laughs, and maybe even some drama, out of this shallow, sophomoric script. But the actors assembled by the Footsteps Theatre Company are so painfully ill at ease onstage that there’s hardly a believable moment in the show. As Shay, Carol Whelan delivers her lines in such a halting fashion that she never establishes the vibrant, witty personality her character supposedly possesses. Vita Dennis has a similar problem as Shay’s sister, Marce–her delivery is so tentative that her character remains inscrutable. Paul Scheier, as Shay’s son, Reg, has a flat, monotonous delivery that undercuts his effort to make Reg seem wry and flippant. Shay’s husband, Ed, is underdeveloped by the playwright, but Terry Muller doesn’t add much to the role. Only Marge Royce, as Fran, displays any grasp of the character she portrays. Her performance actually adds an occasional spark to the proceedings.

Shay wants to be a play about a woman in crisis. That’s undoubtedly why the Footsteps Theatre selected it–the company was created “to promote and encourage . . . theater written by women, or writings that present women in a strong and favorable light,” according to its mission statement. Instead, it’s just soap opera. At the very least, Shay could have depicted a family in crisis. The playwright introduces several problems–Shay’s husband accommodates his wife’s illness, for example, and rejects any suggestion that she is ill; he can’t communicate with his son, and shows no interest in his daughter; and the daughter’s eating disorder hints at anxiety rooted in family dynamics.

But the playwright ignores these dramatic possibilities and concentrates instead on plodding, irrelevant exposition. (The show lasts two hours and 15 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission.) The result is a pat, one-dimensional depiction of a neurotic disorder. That might be fine for a show in a church basement sponsored by an agoraphobics’ support group, but a case study is not drama. If it were, I’d be inclined to stay in the house, too, and watch the “drama” on TV.