Review: “Make Believe,” a world premiere in Hartford

From left, RJ Vercellone, Sloane Wolfe, Alexa Skye Swinton and Roman Malenda in “Make Believe.”

“Make Believe,” the brave and beautiful new play by Bess Wohl currently having its world premiere at Hartford Stage, has set the bar very high for the new fall theatre season. Certainly, it is Hartford Stage’s most impressive new work in years.

Bess Wohl, whose quirky comedy “Small Mouth Sounds” was a hit for the Long Wharf Theatre last season, explores childhood and all its ramifications in “Make Believe.” Set in an expansive child’s playroom (the detail-perfect scenic design is by Antje Ellermann), the play is well in progress as the audience enters and we observe four young children acting very much like kids at home among their surroundings. Set in the 1980s, “Make Believe” follows these children in part one for a full 45 minutes until they become adults in part two (the show is played without intermission). We soon learn the youngsters have been left on their own by their mom and an answering machine keeps taking messages inquiring about her whereabouts (the kids are not allowed to answer the phone or door).

To reveal much more of Bess Wohl’s brilliant and deeply moving play would spoil the intricate way she has structured the work, revealing crucial information through the children’s experiences that pays off hauntingly in the second part. This is the first play I can ever recall that relies so heavily on young children to establish context and forward momentum. Without their invaluable contribution, nothing in part two would work. To this end the gifted director Jackson Gay, doing some of her best work to date, has somehow managed to mold her four young charges into a cohesive whole that is thoroughly authentic, played without coyness or a hint of artifice. It’s a major accomplishment.

The casting, in all, could not be better at Hartford Stage. As the children, Roman Malenda, Alexa Skye Swinton, RJ Vercellone and Sloane Wolfe work as a solid family unit with all the familiar bickering, childish taunting, sibling rivalry and parental influence on display. Playing the adults, Megan Byrne, Brad Heberlee and Molly Ward excel as grown-up versions of three of the children while Chris Ghaffari is both amusing and poignant as an outsider who, unknowingly, has secrets to share. There are dozens of memorable moments in this heartbreaker of a play, but I’ll mention two without giving away too many critical details. Mr. Heberlee has a long, sad and often hilarious monologue late in the play that is so richly written and aguishly performed that it tells you everything Wohl is exploring about the uneasy and damaging legacy that parents sometimes leave on their children. The other moment is a lovely directorial choice when Wolfe, as the oldest daughter, is trying her first cigarette just as her older self (Byrne) appears on the opposite end of the stage. It’s a perfect visual picture.
 

Gay’s use of silence and pauses in the drama also contain so much power you can almost hear the audience collectively holding their breath until a character finally speaks. But then, there are so many potent and gorgeous pieces of acting, writing and directing in “Make Believe” that it’s truly worth seeing twice. It may seem ridiculously early in the season to make this claim, but I can’t imagine seeing a better play this year.

“Make Believe” continues at Hartford Stage through Sept. 30. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.