Scientifically-minded religious skeptics are supposed to be willing to accept new evidence of an afterlife, if any is ever found. But what could really count as “evidence” of such a thing? In her 2016 slice-of-life drama Going to a Place Where You Already Are, playwright Bekah Brunstetter explores how an irreligious family is disrupted by the impending death of one of its members, who suddenly becomes convinced that she’s going to a better place. She’s at peace, but the others aren’t.
A Repressed Need Comes to the Fore
The play opens with Roberta (Kathleen Ruhl) and her husband, Joe (Art Fox) attending the funeral of someone who barely even counted as an acquaintance. They’ve come to pay their respects, but struggle not to display any outward sign of contempt at the speakers’ very sensual description of the spirit world. Roberta also points out the Yogi Berra-style logic of attending other peoples’ funerals so that they’ll attend yours. But she becomes more bothered by her own observation until she breaks down in tears and confesses that there’s a part of her that still desperately wants to believe in heaven.
Shortly later, while undergoing an MRI, Roberta has a near-death experience. The MRI finds inoperable late-stage cancer, but she truly isn’t scared. While her brain was deprived of oxygen she met a psychopomp (Colin Quinn Rice) who assured her that everything would be alright, and she feels a sense of peace that has only grown stronger since she woke up. Joe struggles with this—he’s a scientist and can’t separate the concept of an afterlife from the god of the Old Testament or the oppression of organized religion. But Roberta’s visions don’t end there. She has another which addresses a major source of pain in her past and convinces her not to be reasoned out of believing what she sees is real.
Redtwist Theatre’s Ensemble Builds a Family
Kathleen Ruhl’s performance is endlessly charming, funny, and empathetic. She covers a vast range, from Roberta’s crises to her acceptance, suffused with the character’s steadfast pragmatism. Roberta’s confidence in her fate only makes her more determined to wrap up all her loose ends, which forces Joe and her step-granddaughter, Ellie (Abby Dillion) to confront things they’d rather not. Art Fox’s cantankerous performance matches Ruhl’s in charm and realism. Their interplay as an old couple still in love provides the show with a firm emotional foundation, even as the rift between their characters grows. After all, if Joe respects Roberta so much, why is he so opposed to her enlightened attitude toward mortality?
Brunstetter doesn’t attempt to tie everything neatly together. A sub-plot involves Ellie’s relationship with Jonas (Joel Rodriguez), a one-night stand she develops feelings for that she is reluctant to acknowledge because she is emotionally unavailable and he is disabled. Jonas’s atheism is more outwardly laid-back but anti-humanistic than Joe’s, and Ellie’s ethical philosophy in general is more fraught with guilt than Roberta’s. Under director Matt Hawkins’s direction, their grappling with life forms an important, but not intrusive addition to a story mostly about grappling with death. Brunstetter also doesn’t confirm whether Roberta had a real vision or not. She certainly had an extremely appealing one, filled not only with vividly-described bodily pleasures, but also the assurance that her biggest regret in life didn’t really cause any harm. It seems more than a little too-good-to-be-true, but nobody can deny that Roberta is coping far better than anyone else is. It seems that even a genuine belief in paradise doesn’t make death much less complicated.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
1044 W Bryn Mawr
Chicago, IL 60660
Now thru July 23
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 3:00 pm
Run time is ninety minutes