At the beginning of the play “In Silence,” currently playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, we meet a married man named Paul; He is crying for a woman who was hit by a car while crossing the street and is now unresponsive and in a coma.
The woman was Paul’s lover, thanks to a Bible study group meeting, and in the next scene we see Paul recounting his misery to his wife, Max, who has just returned home from a business trip. This situation, which comes as a complete surprise, paves the way for a traumatic ethical dilemma for Max: How should he balance his own pain and anger with his cheating wife’s need for sympathy? Does he have such an obligation?
At this point in Anna Ouyang Moench’s play, the audience in the Old Town theater was extremely attentive. It’s a good plot and a believable situation for a contemporary drama. Director Dado’s production stars two empathetic actors, Brittany Burch and Joe Edward Metcalfe, as Max and Paul. This holds true even as the couple ventures into dangerous territory, such as who is responsible for their marital woes and the place of religion and gender politics in the relationship dynamic. Great first few minutes.
But then Max decides to attend her husband’s Southern Baptist seminary and takes a bunkhouse at what is called the Homemaker’s House, where women learn domestic skills and take a more traditional, religious view of women in marriage. She signs up as a mentor rather than a student, even lying about her housekeeping skills. There he meets Terri (Kirsten Fitzgerald), who runs the place, and Beth (Alexandra Chopson), a young, engaged woman with views on gender roles that are quite different from Max’s.
Certainly on purpose, Moench doesn’t show us the scene where Max makes a strange choice that undermines his career as a management consultant in favor of cutting the crusts off sandwiches. And while this game is intriguing and not without entertainment value, the decision to use the logic behind a life-changing moment as a means to maintain tension makes everything that happens at the seminary so hard to believe that it undermines the whole absurdity.
“Why is this woman here?” You keep thinking as events take strange turns. I imagine Moench, whose play premiered in New York in 2016, was trying to find a device that would connect a conservative young woman worried about protecting her man with an older professional who seems to have lost his by suppressing his masculinity. the religious man claims. Fine and Moench also know how to write funny, biting dialogue and rich, offbeat characters (including Beth’s fiancee, played by Adam Shalzi). But I still found myself struggling so much with Max’s self-subjugation, his personal decision tree in general, that I had a hard time getting invested.
Is she doing all these degrading things for the guy who has the Bible and has this relationship? We don’t see the history of their marriage as enough to be invested in its survival, and despite Chopson’s honest work, religious conservatives mostly come off as stereotypes pulled out for laughs.
Moench has been a busy TV writer since writing this play, and you can see plenty of evidence here that he must be an invaluable asset in a writers room working with predetermined arcs. It’s great to see Burch, one of Chicago’s most exciting actors, in such a rich role. Burch is an incredible listener onstage and gives this person everything she has and drives the show with her intensity.
But while this is a game with engaging writing, appealing freedom of form, and some interesting takes on the culture wars, it doesn’t really hold together, structurally speaking.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “In Silence” (2.5 stars)
When: until March 3
Where: One Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
Working time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Tickets: $20-$45 and by phone at 312-943-8722. www.aredorchidtheatre.org