At the start of “In Quietness,” the play now at A Red Orchid Theatre, we meet a married man, Paul, crying over a woman who was hit by a car crossing the street and now is in a coma, unresponsive.
The woman was Paul’s lover, thanks to a Bible study group meeting, and, in the next scene, we see Paul revealing his misery to his wife, Max, who has just returned home from a business trip. That situation, which comes as a total surprise, opens a traumatic ethical dilemma for Max: How should she balance her own pain and fury with her cheating spouse’s need for sympathy? Does she have any such obligation?
At that point in Anna Ouyang Moench’s play, the audience at the Old Town theater was raptly attentive. It’s a fine setup for a contemporary drama, and a credible situation. And director Dado’s production features two empathetic actors in Brittany Burch and Joe Edward Metcalfe as Max and Paul. That remains true even as the couple wanders into the dangerous territory of who was responsible for their marital woes and the place of religion and gender politics in their relationship dynamic. It’s a great first few minutes.
But then Max decides to repair herself to her husband’s Southern Baptist seminary, and she takes a bunk in the so-called Homemaker House, where women learn domestic skills and a more traditional, religious take on women in marriage. She doesn’t enroll as a student so much as a mentor, even lying about her housework skills. There she meets Terri (Kirsten Fitzgerald), who runs this place, and Beth (Alexandra Chopson), a young engaged woman who has strong views on gender roles very much at variance with those of Max.
Surely with intention, Moench does not show us the scene where Max makes the strange choice to torpedo her career as a management consultant in favor of cutting the crusts off sandwiches. And while this play is not without interest and entertainment value, that decision to use the rationale behind a life-changing moment as a tool for maintaining suspense makes everything that happens at the seminary so hard to believe as to undermine the whole shebang.
“Why is this woman here?” you keep thinking, as events take bizarre turns. I think Moench, whose play was seen in New York in 2016, was trying to find a device to put a conservative young woman, worried about keeping her man, with an older professional who appears to have lost hers by squelching his masculinity, or so the pious guy claims. Fine, and Moench also knows how to write funny, caustic dialogue and rich, offbeat characters (including Beth’s fiance, played by Adam Shalzi). But I still found myself struggling so much with Max’s self-subjugation, not to mention her personal decision tree in general, that I found it hard to invest.
She’s doing all of this humiliating stuff for the guy with the Bible and the affair? We just don’t see enough of the history of their marriage to invest in its survival and, notwithstanding honest work by Chopson, the religious conservatives come off mostly as stereotypes mined for laughs.
Moench has become a busy TV writer since she wrote this play and you can see plenty of evidence here that she must be very valuable in a writer’s room working with preordained arcs. And it’s good to see Burch, one of Chicago’s most exciting actors, in such a rich role. Burch is a phenomenal onstage listener and gives this one everything she’s got —and drives the show with her intensity.
But while this is a play with juicy writing, an appealing freedom of form and some interesting takes on the culture wars, it just doesn’t really hold together, structurally speaking.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “In Quietness” (2.5 stars)
When: Through March 3
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Tickets: $20-$45 at 312-943-8722 and www.aredorchidtheatre.org