Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Sweet and Sad
Profiles Theatre

Eric Burgher, Harmony France, Robert Breuler, Kristin Ford and Kate Harris
Richard Nelson's play, which premiered at New York's Public Theater on September 11, 2011, the day in which the action is set, depicts the Sunday dinner of a family of adult siblings who have gathered to hear their retired stage actor uncle perform a reading in a 9/11 memorial program. Barbara Apple (Kate Harris) and her sister Marian (Kristin Ford) are primary caregivers for Uncle Benjamin (Robert Breuler), now suffering from early stages of dementia. Brother Richard (Darrell W. Cox), sister Jane (Harmony France), and Jane's boyfriend Tim (Eric Burgher) come up from New York City to the family's homestead 100 miles north to hear Benjamin read Walt Whitman's poem "The Wound-Dresser" (from which the title of the play is taken) in the program to be presented by schoolteacher Barbara's students.

The play consists of conversation so current and topical we could be eavesdropping on an actual family dinner. This "fly-on the-wall" feeling is intensified by Joe Jahraus' in-the-round staging placing the audience on all sides of the dinner table. While I spent most of the first 15 minutes without a view of any actors' faces, Jahraus gets them all up and moving around for better visibility as the play progresses. Profiles' trademark naturalistic style serves the piece well, with a quick pace and overlapping speeches, in delivering Nelson's believable, contemporary dialogue. The piece has an uncommonly leisurely forward motion, but it's more than a slice of life, and earns some exceptionally moving dramatic moments as the family deals with grief over lost lives and lost youth. Though Nelson's themes are sometimes presented here as directly as they might be in an essay, they come off in this production—with much credit due to Jahraus's direction and uniformly strong cast—as a believable discussion among thoughtful, intelligent people. Nelson includes references to real world events theatergoers will recognize—a nod to his musical James Joyce's The Dead and Broadway's Belasco Theatre, where it ran; a description of a benefit that is clearly meant to be Broadway Bares—that connect the script to real life. Chicago audiences also will appreciate a reference to our city's notorious parking meter system.

Nelson has written that this play and its predecessor (That Hopey Changey Thing) in a planned four-play cycle about the Apple family are "so completely tied to specific times" that they might quickly become dated. He addresses that concern not only in his program notes (he hopes they will prove to be more enduring than that), but indirectly in Sweet and Sad itself. One of the characters describes an art installation that consisted of piles of candy which viewers were invited to eat. The artist intended the art to be temporary, but hoped that while it existed it would help make the world sweeter. Nelson is implying that it's okay for art to be ephemeral rather than enduring, to serve a purpose for its time and then be gone.

The larger question of Sweet and Sad, though, is how long is it appropriate to grieve? At some point, isn't it time to move on? 9/11 is very much on the minds of the Apples. Richard lost friends in the attacks and before the stage action begins, he attended an annual memorial with other friends of people who were lost. Richard notes that the group adjourned early, perhaps in the realization that they had grieved enough. There's grief of many types in Sweet and Sad. Marian grieves the loss of her teenage daughter and breakup of her marriage. Benjamin may grieve the loss of his memories as well as his youth, though he seems good-natured about that. In Breuler's sensitive and quiet performance, we never know for sure if Benjamin is confused or just teasing.

In the course of this 105-minute intermissionless play, with the action all in real time (save for moments when the actors pause as we hear the whirring sound of a camera and see a flash, as if to shoot a photo of the moment), the characters come to a deeper understanding of their losses. While listening to a recording of requiem, Barbara notes that she only recently learned the meaning of the word—"to rest." Sometimes it's time to give memories a rest. It's a theme that is likely to make Sweet and Sad enduring after all.

Sweet and Sad will play at Profile's The Main Stage theater, 4139 N. Broadway, through October 7, 2012. For ticket information visit or call 773-549-1815.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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