David Rabe (“Streamers,” “Hurlyburly”), a playwright in the midst of a creative resurgence, delivers a heavy but fascinating drama on the futility of understanding human relationships in “Visiting Edna,” now getting its world premiere at Chicago’s vaunted Steppenwolf Theater. The tale of an mother and her grown son trying desperately to make a fulfilling connection after she has been diagnosed with terminal illness, Rabe’s play mightily resists traditional dramatic twists or revelations, insisting on a realistic depiction of a complex relationship, loving but bafflingly unsatisfying to both. Jolly or joyful this is not, but the work ultimately has a deeply searing power, both because of and despite an insistent slow burn and an absence of explosions.
At its intensely realistic core, we find Edna (an outstanding Debra Monk), who is in her late 70s and feels just fine, except she also has an apparently untreatable form of cancer. She lives alone in the Midwest — her husband died years ago and her kids and grandkids live on the East coast. Her grown son Andrew (an equally excellent Ian Barford) comes for a visit, spending time with his mother as an extension to a work trip, well aware that it may well be the last days they have together, no matter how robust she appears on the surface.
While the central relationship could not be more realistically depicted, Rabe provides Edna and Andrew with some more company: two fanciful theatrical figures who introduce themselves at the start. Actor One (Sally Murphy) explains that she will portray Television, and throughout, with relentless cheeriness, she encourages Edna and Andrew to fill uncomfortable silences with whatever’s on. Actor Two (Tim Hopper) is cancer itself, and more specifically the cancer that has found a host in Edna and is determined to “take her.”
He’s sincere and dour but nonetheless provides moments of comedy, not because anthropomorphized cancer has a sense of humor, but because his efforts to appeal to the worst possible temptations, such as regret and resentment, are so brazen as to be funny. “I wish you still smoked,” he says to Andrew, with a sense of genuine sadness. But Rabe is not a writer of black comedy; the bigger impression is that of cancer simply accompanying Edna into her bedroom at night.
These devices are quite brilliant. While Television can at times be a touch hokey, and the literal presence of cancer can feel unsubtle, the actors and director Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) manage to find a comfortable balance. For the most part they magnify rather than distract from Rabe’s focus on his two core characters. Edna and Andrew — whether together or alone — are pulled in two polar directions: to focus on mortality and get swept into negativity, or to give in to the temptations of mostly empty distraction.
For the most part, they do neither, at least for long. Instead, we see them making halting efforts to be together as fully as they can, to find meaning, to connect. On occasion, they succeed, and leave it to Rabe to leave those moments offstage, and to connect happiness to something as mundane and superficially negative as getting a flat tire.
They do the oh-so-typical things that such a mother and son do. They plan to go to a movie but don’t. Edna encourages Andrew to go out with old friends, and, predictably, feels abandoned when he takes her up on it.
In a more typical play, the tensions would boil over, or the revelations about the past — explored here through long and often beautiful monologues — would lead to moments of deep insight, would “explain” the frostiness of their relationship. But Rabe, to his credit, resolutely refuses to go there. That time Andrew, as a young child, saw people jump to their deaths due to a hotel fire? It gnaws at them both, but explains little. For Andrew, it’s an obsessive memory, but not one he admits has caused identifiable trauma. For Edna, it’s a source of guilt, but not any more than hitting her kids. At other moments, they show real love. He calls her Mommy throughout. At times they lapse into talking to each other in baby talk.
The play hasn’t quite found its ending; it currently has a couple of them. Rabe almost seems tempted to allow an interpretation, to find a way to give it just a touch of a sunny spin. But that wouldn’t be right. “Visiting Edna” should remain no more than what it is: a beautifully agonizing depiction of spending time with a loved one who is dying, trying to make the time have meaning, and usually failing.