It’s a bold move to hang the first half of a play on child actors. But Bess Wohl and the young performers in question pull it off in her new play, Make Believe. It is essentially a naturalistic family drama, but the risky choice to open the play with a world established entirely by four young children offers a fresh perspective and greater immediacy to the themes of memory, parental modeling, and the inheritance of trauma.
Make Believe finds little Addie (Casey Hilton) playing with her Cabbage Patch Doll in a convincing attic-turned-playroom, created with meticulous attention to detail and period (the 1980s) by David Zinn. She is soon joined by older sister Kate (Maren Heary), and younger and older brothers Carl (Harrison Fox) and Chris (Ryan Foust). As the kids squabble and play, it becomes clear that neither parent has been home for some time—dad on the classic “business trip” and mom mysteriously AWOL.
Playing “house,” the kids fall into reenactment and a picture of their homelife pre-abandonment emerges—performative parental fights with resentment, frustration, and anger all seeping through. The gaps in the parental narrative that the kids sketch out with their limited knowledge (dad’s illicit business trip activity is to watch television, “the boob tube”) are easily filled in turn by an adult audience familiar with the tropes of philandering husband, discontented, borderline alcoholic wife and fights that quickly go too far.
As familiar as these tropes are, the switch in perspective that Wohl achieves by having the children unveil the backstory reinvigorates the old narrative (which is certainly no less true to life for being cliché). It also offers a less explored theme; the parents’ emotional wounds settling like a heavy residue on the children, molding their conception of family life, instilling them with a sense of precarity born of volatile emotions, while their abandonment triggers a new narrative of trauma.
The child-rendered storytelling also lends a pleasingly stylized allure to an otherwise strictly realist play, which is more forgiving too of the occasional but inevitable moments of stiffness from the generally exceptional child actors. Wohl’s writing and Michael Greif’s direction pair well—neither push cuteness, shock tactics or pathos on the kids. The result is that the children are genuinely appealing, and their enactment of the family drama both shocking and moving. (The four juvenile cast members are talented, but not all directors know how to coax skilled performances from child actors, without having them lose their own natural charm.)
In terms of documentary realism, Wohl is relatively restrained in envisaging the effects on children of a dysfunctional, abusive parental relationship, with Carl’s loss of human speech as the clearest indicator of the psychological damage done. But her lighter touch and the comedy that punctuates the play as a whole saves Make Believe from descending into maudlin melodrama. Some thematic underscoring—textual, but also the prominent playhouse and children dressed as ghosts—risks being overdrawn, but the production is tight enough to get away with it.
It is almost disappointing when the adult performers finally appear as the children’s adult selves in the second half. Having girded my loins at the first realization that this was a child-actor dependent show, I began to like the idea of the action slowly unfolding through the childhood world—real and imagined—of Addie, Kate, Chris, and Carl.
The adult continuation of the narrative lands the play more squarely in conventional domestic drama territory though thankfully still in the atmospheric attic and not in the “couch play” format of which Exeunt critic Dan O’Neill has quite rightly wearied. The writing is sharp, however, and ably embodied by an excellent cast. In addition to the talented kids, Samantha Mathis, Susannah Flood, Kim Fischer, and Brad Heberlee provide snappy and sensitive performances.
Without being formulaic, these are the kind of actors who instantly know what to do with a script like this: they have good chemistry, fluently meld emotional depth and gentle comedy, and are believable adult versions of their younger selves.
I personally dislike the use of dingly, non-diegetic, non-specific music in scene transitions to create “atmosphere,” and this production doesn’t need it. Overall, however, the design elements capture a complete and cohesive world. The attic looks like a real attic. The door slams convincingly. The light outside looks like the changing daylight to night outside. The sound effects (excepting those few scene transitions) are at one with the action. The clothes chosen by Emilio Sosa look like clothes the characters would, and have, actually worn. As a child of the eighties, I can attest to the accuracy of both props and costume. In addition to completing the realist setting, Ben Stanton’s lights and Bray Poor’s music provide small excursions into the children’s imaginations and the surreal (and in these instances the fanciful effect is justified).
Make Believe manages a curious feat—without any major genre innovations it comes at a family collapse story with fresh energy and with smart purpose. It is rather fitting that a play which on some level promises that although we are shaped and sometimes scarred by our childhoods, we are not doomed entirely to repetition of the mold, should find new corners in familiar theatrical places. There is life in the domestic drama yet.