Dobama Theatre’s ‘Make Believe’ shows how the ghosts of childhood carry through
Let’s be honest. There are some plays that just aren't suited for everyone. Case in point is the Dobama Theatre production of Bess Wohl’s “Make Believe.” This is not to say that it is a bad play. In fact it is terrific. It has an engaging story line, extremely good actors and a terrific stage set. It also has, as warned “adult language and adult situations” and oh brother does it have lots of those. It is a show that deals with such subjects as child abandonment, child rape, homosexuality, divorce, adultery and the effects that childhood trauma can carry into adult life. For some this could warrant an emergency session with their friendly neighborhood psychiatrist.
It is the mid-80’s and the four children of the Conlee family have sequestered themselves in their large attic playroom. The oldest boy, Chris (Arthur Atwell) has taken over the role as father. The oldest girl, Kate (Kaitlyn Bartholomew) is the mother. Addie (Claire Zalevsky) is called Little Miss and Carl (Jonah McMurdy) has been delegated to the role of family dog (yes...he barks a lot).
The children spend their time playing as ghosts, going in and out of their bed sheet tent, doing school work, playing with various toys and dolls, having dramatic family arguments and “plastic dinners.” Nothing seems out of place until the phone rings and the four youngsters press their ears to the floor to listen to the answering machine. At one point, Chris calls their school disguising his voice as a nanny excusing the children from class due to illness.
Running low on real food, Chris disappears only to return with groceries, candy and cash. Kate believes he has stolen it all but he refuses to tell the source. Eventually we learn that their mother has simply left and the children are on their own. The father (on a “business trip/affair”) returns and takes the brood to Olive Garden to meet his new girl friend.
It is now year later and three of the children have return to the attic sanctuary as adults with a wake that is in progress downstairs. Chris has died of a heroin overdose and as the story of his life unfolds we find that Kate (Courtney Brown) has moved to Seattle and is a gastroenterologist, Addie (Anjanette Hall) is a television actress living in Los Angeles and Carl has stopped barking and started talking and is partnered with the originators of Google and is filthy rich in spite of his mild Asperger's syndrome. Addie is “caught” in the tent with Chris (Andrew Pope) who was Chris Conlee’s lover.
Everyone present is damaged goods resulting from their upbringing or lack of. As they attempt to cope with their older brother’s death, they begin to realize how their shared experiences have brought them to this present state.
The stage set design by Laura Tarantowski is totally awesome. There are so many elements to it you will spend most of the play just looking at all the pieces and parts on display. Marcus Dana handles the lighting design that is airy and light. Richard Ingraham does the crisp sound design which is sharp and clear. Lady Jen Ryan handles costuming, clothing everyone appropriately. Vanessa Cook is in charge of the many props scattered throughout. All these elements play a vital part in the enjoyment of the work.
As for the actors, they are truly superb. Arthur Atwell as Chris, Kaitlyn Bartholomew as Kate, Claire Zalevsky as Addie and Jonah McMurdy as Carl are children tasked with over forty-five minutes of dialog which they perform flawlessly. Courtney Brown as adult Kate, Anjanette Hall as adult Addie, Paul Hurley as adult Carl and Andrew Pope as adult Chris (the deceased Chris Conlee’s lover) bring a high degree of vulnerability. They are each successful in their way yet cannot shake the trauma that has haunted them like the ghosts they used to play.
This is a work that you must steel yourself beforehand in order to appreciate it to its fullest. As advertised, it is an adult play with language and themes that for some may be a bit too much but for others an opener of conversations with their significant others. You decide.
The Dobama Theater production of “Make Believe” will be on stage in their theater at 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio through October 29, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.dobama.org/ or call (216) 932-3396.