Thomas Wolf said in Look Homeward Angel, that one can never really go home again. This is particularly true for those who have established themselves in careers and have become successful. Not only have they picked themselves up and replanted roots in an environment where they can flourish, they are often loath to associate with their origins especially if the memories are unhappy ones. But what happens to those who have no where else to go? Home isn’t always the place where they have to take you in.
Emily Schwend in Take Me Back, directed by Jay Stull, explores the scenario of a young man who has returned home in desperation. As the play opens, we note that Bill (James Kautz) has served time in jail for theft. Unable to start elsewhere with no education, few prospects, no money or other place to live, he has moved in with his diabetic mom (a fine performance by Charlotte Booker). He attempts to take care of her. He tries to control her eating habits and get her to take her blood sugar in the morning and during the day. Above all he monitors her like a security guard to make sure she stays off the sweets. The exchanges between mother and son are humorous, and Sue’s furtive stashing of candies and goodies brings knowing chuckles from the audience. Kautz and Charlotte Booker have established a rapport that feels right as this mother and son attempt to adjust to circumstances where each are dependent on the other, though it is not necessarily a dependence that is desired or appreciated.
Frustrated that he has mucked up his life and upset that his mom is not listening to his adjurations about her diabetes, Bill resorts back to his old thieving ways. What opportunities are open to him in Oklahoma except to work in a Walmart and make the minimum wage? He can only see a series of unrewarding empty decades ahead. For him that is not better than nothing. The exciting allure of his old life beckons with the promise of a quick buck and an easy inside job. It is only when former girlfriend Julie shows up that he begins to believe that he might be able to get along in this desolate environment. When she reciprocates in an affectionate way and says she will come back and see him, he realizes that perhaps there is the hope that they can be together. He has correctly surmised she does not love her husband and is unhappy in her marriage.
Schwend has established themes that will resonate with all who have lived in this country during the last twenty years. There is the issue that the children will have to care for their aging parents who are starting on the road to dementia and who have multiple physical problems, including type two diabetes. There is also the issue of few employment opportunities away from larger coastal cities if one doesn’t have an advanced college degree, technical skills, or show entrepreneurial promise in creating one’s own opportunities. Another issue is the sad fact that children after divorce or other major life changes have moved back in with parents to share economic burdens. Worse, some have found it nearly impossible to leave home because they can’t afford living alone or sharing rent.
Sub rosa issues weaving throughout the play point to a shrinking middle class, increasing economic hardship, and no employment opportunities. These have created a declining social community. Meanwhile, the prison population of which Bill had been a part has continued to soar. Underlying all these themes is that the humdrum, boring every day existence of work at a “dead end” job is no existence. Anything that can prompt one to escape (excessive entertainment, drugs, alcohol, addictions, the seduction of petty crime) is what a young people will seek out to release themselves from the boredom of “life” that is not living. Only family can get folks through. But what hope is there if the family is a parent in decline? There is the possibility of love and a relationship with someone to share one’s existence with, perhaps.
Schwend’s play is filled with pathos. There are a few surprising twists. The ensemble brings it all together under the competent direction of Jay Stull. The underlying questions Schwend asks will be confronting the U.S. in the next decades. How can we create more employment in decent, interesting jobs that pay well? How can we shore up the heartland with opportunities to stabilize the social community and strengthen it? Will resolving these problems be enough to keep men and women out of jail? The questions are important ones. Schwend has brought them to the fore without indicating political answers. With her homely characterizations, dynamic relationships, and important themes, she has given us much to contemplate.
The New York City premiere of Take Me Back will be performed at Walkerspace through March 22nd.