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Theater review: Things get real in ‘Make Believe’ at the Underground

'Make Believe' opened Thursday night

DNT review
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“Make Believe,” which opened at the Underground Theatre Thursday night, is a surprisingly intense theatrical experience that will impact many audience members more than they could have anticipated.

The four pre-teens in the Conlee family are hanging out after school in their playroom in the attic. The movie poster for “E.T.” and the Cabbage Patch doll tell us the time is in the 1980s.

Their mother is nowhere to be found and — to add insult to injury — failed to leave any snacks.

Jacob Waechter is Chris, the oldest, followed by Gwen Evans as Kate, Paisley Kern as Addie, and Baker Anderson as Carl. The kids find various ways to spend their time, including playing house, where it becomes clear that Chris and Kate are channeling their parents, while Addie plays with her doll and Carl is assigned to play the family dog.

Waechter has the showiest part as Chris takes charge, but the crucial component is that these kids all seem like real kids, albeit in an unreal situation.

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A series of about a dozen short scenes provides hints and allegations of what has and is happening outside of that attic playroom. Messages are left on the answering machine downstairs, while knocks on the front door are ignored. Pretend plastic food is replaced by real groceries.

We are getting pieces of a puzzle, but not enough to form a complete picture. There is a real sense of mystery because the clues to unlocking everything are not crystal clear. Somewhat surprisingly, we do not mind playing catch-up with the story being spun.

When young Chris promises his siblings “We are not even going to remember most of this when we grow up,” it is patently obvious that playwright Bess Wohl has announced the text of her drama as clear as a preacher at the start of a Sunday sermon.

After a seamless transition from past to present spanning three decades, the grown children, who all moved to the other side of the continent after they left home, return to the playroom in the attic and try to make sense of what happened to them as children.

The second half of the play is one long scene in which much, but not everything, will be revealed. Director Wes Drummond’s cast deliver both the dark and the light moments as we see how the need to know comes at a price.

I appreciate the irony of watching “Make Believe” the same week as the final episode of “This is Us,” a show that double-doubled down on characters unstuck in time. Especially since this play has a twist on a twist at the end, which was a nice touch.

Mary Fox as Adult Kate continues to wear wraps around her shoulder and play the role of mother she did as a child. Sarah Larson Dotson’s Adult Addie has continued to play the parts assigned to her, but now as a television actress. At times you get glimpses of Fox and Dotson channeling their younger versions.

It makes perfect sense to me that the character who spoke the least as a kid is the one who is most able to articulate what happened. As Adult Carl, Zachary Stofer takes us on an emotional rollercoaster in a lengthy speech, which plays out so beautifully upon the face of Sam Hildestad as Adult Chris in the play’s most cathartic moment.

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“Make Believe” comes with a warning that it contains strong adult language and references to child abuse. Beyond that it is a play capable of stirring up memories in the audience of how they viewed their own parents through the imperfect lenses of the eyes of children, something I was not at all expecting.

Scenic designer Hannah Baldus’s decision to put the attic playroom on a raised platform certainly enhanced the view of the actors for those sitting in the back rows of the audience. Too bad this is the penultimate production at the Underground because that would have been a staging element worth repeating.

“Make Believe” is another example of the Playhouse taking advantage of the local talent to put on shows that combine younger and older actors. We have seen this in recent productions from “Annie” at the NorShor to the Family Theater’s “A Year with Frog and Toad.” It is nice to see the Underground series getting into the mix as well.

If you go

What: “Make Believe” by Bess Wohl

Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.

When: 7:30 p.m. May 26-28 and June 3-4

Tickets: $22 at duluthplayhouse.org

Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the News Tribune.

Related Topics: NORSHOR THEATERTHEATER
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