Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Pain and the Itch
by Bruce Norris
World Premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's review of A Kiss from Alexander

Jayne Houdyshell, Kate Arrington, Lillian Almaguer, Zak Orth, Mariann Mayberry and James Vincent Meredith
It was somewhere back in the late 1980s that the marketing guru and futurist Faith Popcorn identified a trend she named "cocooning." On one level, called "socialized cocooning," it's a retreat to the privacy of one's own home, primarily for comfort. Popcorn spoke also of "armored cocooning," in which one establishes a barrier to protect oneself from external threats. From the outset, Dan Ostling's realistic set (depicting what the program calls "a very nice urban home," complete with wide-screen TV and stainless steel appliances), tells us the protagonists practice cocooning at least on the socialized level. As the action progresses, playwright Bruce Norris shows how the yuppie couple Kelly (Mariann Mayberry) and Clay (Zak Orth) attempt to create an armored cocoon for themselves and their preschooler daughter Kayla (alternately played by Lillian Almaguer and Darragh Quinn Dolan). Their limited ability to do so is the subject of The Pain and the Itch, which at first blush seems to be a darkly comic variation on the conventions of American family TV sitcoms. Picture Everybody Loves Raymond through the eyes of Edward Albee.

Clay and Kelly appear to value nothing so much as the middle-American ideal of a safe and healthy family, and see themselves as progressive, out-of-the-box thinkers in the manner in which they pursue that dream. Kelly, a high-powered attorney with apparently greater earning potential than Clay, is the breadwinner while Clay is the stay-at-home Dad. They embrace child-rearing techniques that threaten no more than "a big ‘time-out'" even for Kayla's most egregious misbehavior, and admonish Clay's mother for talking to Kayla in baby talk.

At a family Thanksgiving Dinner, their apparent best intentions seem to unravel. Clay and Kelly have discovered a partially-eaten avocado that suggests an intrusion into their home by some unknown, but undoubtedly (to them) menacing creature. Clay reveals his need to be seen by Kelly and the family as a competent homemaker and father, since he can't claim any competency in the business/professional world, but he struggles to keep the home alarm system under control and is keeping a secret of the ominous rash in Kayla's genital area lest he be seen as a bad father in the eyes of his family. Even the wide-screen TV fails to co-operate in Clay's scenario to maintain appearances, replaying some particularly embarrassing programming on the VCR or DVR at inopportune times.

Though we're not surprised by occasional threats from outside forces like wild animals, bacteria or viruses; or from malfunctions of the technology that's supposed to protect and entertain us, we expect better from our family. No such luck here. The guests at this Thanksgiving dinner include Clay's brother Cash (Tracy Letts in a bitingly funny performance), and their amazingly un-self-aware mother (Jayne Houdyshell). The life-long feud between Cash and Clay is beyond mere sibling rivalry, and when the brothers aren't fighting, Clay clashes with his wildly inappropriate and much-younger eastern-European immigrant girlfriend Kalina (Kate Arrington). Kalina tells us she was the victim of abuse by some soldiers in her native country, resulting in a injury that has left her unable to conceive. This memory of violence in a distant land only enhances Clay and Kelly's fear that some evil force has penetrated their seemingly secure home, and may be responsible for their daughter's infection as well as the violation of their avocados.

All of this is presented in a flashback as told to Mr. Haddad (James Vincent Meredith), a visitor with an African accent whose purpose is not made clear until very near the end of the play. As the play opens, Clay and Kelly are apparently trying to offer him comfort over the death of a loved one, but they self-centeredly keep lapsing into talk of their own issues as they recount the events of that Thanksgiving Day. This could be frustrating if not for the perfect performances and direction by Anna D. Shapiro. Shapiro's crystal-clear tone and pacing get us in to Clay and Kelly's world so completely and hilariously that we lose our curiosity over Mr. Haddad. Orth delivers a manic Clay trying desperately to maintain control (or at least appearances) and settle old scores, while the Cash of Tracy Letts keeps surprising with his shameless and wickedly funny meanness. Kate Arrington is an absolute riot as she convincingly struggles with her English and social graces. She can be nurturing with young Kayla but brutal in her attitudes toward the gypsies of Eastern Europe. Houdyshell and Mayberry are effective foils for these more dysfunctional characters.

The Pain and the Itch, dark as it is, ultimately becomes much more than a domestic comedy, though it would be wrong for me to tell you exactly how. By the end, and not much before the end, it becomes apparent how cleverly Norris has constructed this piece. Each bit of information we've been given has a significance greater than we thought, and the understanding of it all hits like a ton of bricks. His device of keeping us ignorant of the big picture has enabled us to see the characters not so much as Mr. Haddad sees them, but as they see themselves and perhaps as we might view them if we met the family in person instead of on a stage. I wish I could tell you more. See it for yourself and then let's talk.

The Pain and the Itch runs in the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago; through August 28, 2005. For tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson