REVIEW: Leaving Timmy (The Sweet Life)

How long should a parent grieve?


 Leaving Timmy - Le Bateau de Papier

The Sweet Life presents
Leaving Timmy
Written by Paul Barile
Directed by
Zach Johnson-Dunlop
Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston, Chicago (map)
Through Aug. 15  | Tickets: $10–15  info: 773-539-7838

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

If your husband told you he had seen — and spoken with — your dead child, how would you react? Concern? Fear? Delight? Would you send for a straightjacket or a spiritualist?

In Paul Barile’s thought-provoking drama Leaving Timmy, Maggie Conrad reacts with outrage — an odd and off-putting reaction. At the outset of this very uneven play, currently in world premiere by Barile and Director Zach Johnson-Dunlop’s new theater company, The Sweet Life, a misplaced bottle of glue implies that her husband Tim’s extremely palpable visions of his drowned son are more than his imagination, but the plot never follows up this loose end, and so we come to believe that the manifestations of Timmy arise not from the supernatural, but from Tim’s yearning grief over his lost child.

Maggie herself has so far recovered from their son’s demise that she can refer to him coldly as "that little boy." Her impatience with Tim’s continued mourning makes her a very unlikeable character. Tim only wants to be left alone to recover in his own way, but Maggie pushes her reluctant husband to visit a psychologist, even before he mentions what he’s seen. Her husband’s sister, Annie, shares her view, and the two women gang up on Tim, urging him to get on with his life, even to go back to waterfront activities. Maggie threatens to leave if he doesn’t.

One might be able to understand their perspective had it been many years since Timmy’s death. We’re left wondering about that through the first act, but in Act II we learn the boy drowned in a boating accident only the previous summer. Some people grieve for dead pets longer than that! In Judaism, mourners must visit a synagogue for daily public prayers of mourning for a year months after the death of certain family members. A year seems a very short time to get over the unexpected loss of a child.

Mental-health professionals acknowledge that there’s no time limit on healing. "We begin the process every morning when we get out of bed," Tim says in one of the script’s many good lines. Yet Dr. Baldwin, the psychologist Maggie’s ultimatum forces Tim to see, bizarrely tells him, "You need to get of everything that’s associated with Timmy."

In the hands of a highly skilled cast, we might be able to get past this problem but Ben Campana and Andrea Lucius’s awkward performances as the bereaved couple just make us doubt how much of their stiffness is acting. Despite their protestations of love, the two display little physical chemistry, not even that sparking familiarity of long-married couples who no longer get along too well.

Campana manages his highly mobile face beautifully, but many of his lines seem forced. He’s more at ease in scenes with 9-year-old Nolan Oakes, who does an admirable job as the imaginary, but solid Timmy, drifting in and out to play "Ikka Bikka Soda Cracker" with his dad, cryptic and mysterious.

Lucius also overacts. She’s good at anger but less so at grief or love. However, she performs so much more smoothly in cozy sequences with the glib and lovely Whitney Kraus, who portrays Annie, that one starts to speculate whether the story was going to delve even further into dysfunctional-family complications.

A sedate Julie Ostrow plays Dr. Baldwin. Her introduction, in Act II, plays havoc with Johnson-Dunlop’s blocking and pacing.

The set, a sparely furnished living room, featuring a battered armchair, some beat-up tables and a shabby sofa covered in a mural throw, is continually distracting. Through much of Act I, we’re wondering whether the picture on the blanket will turn out to be a smoking gun of any significance and if the dilapidation of the furnishings reflects the poverty of the play’s characters or merely that of the theater company.

Then in Act II, scene changes to Baldwin’s office slow the action as we wait for cast and crew to slowly drag furniture across the stage — distracting us, from the plot, to ponder why the chair had to be at stage right when it could only be brought in from the other side. It would have been better to dispense with heavy furniture and use the usual boxes or other makeshifts that audiences of off-off-off-Loop theater are fully capable of imagining as whatever they need to be.

Barile, who was once music columnist for Chicago’s erstwhile Lerner Newspapers while I was the paper’s entertainment editor, has crafted a powerful theme with interesting insights, but Leaving Timmy still needs improvement on all fronts.

Rating: ★★

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