Playwright: Emily Schwend. At: The Poor Theatre at Collaboraction, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: www.thepoortheatre.org; $10-$16. Runs through Aug. 8
In The Poor Theatre's Midwest premiere of Emily Schwend's drama Take Me Back, you genuinely feel that you're watching a diabetic mother on stage who has been magically transported directly from the play's setting of Muskogee, Oklahoma. But it's actually veteran actor Susan Monts-Bologna embodying her character of Sue so realistically that you marvel at her naturalistic craft and feel heartbroken along with her character.
Yet Take Me Back isn't just a vehicle for Monts-Bologna to shine. Schwend's slice-of-life drama taps into most anyone's nostalgic desire to go back to a personal time and place before life's disappointments came crashing down.
Take Me Back follows the recently released ex-con Bill ( Dillon Kelleher ), who is living with and caring for his lunch lady mother, Sue. Since he's having a hard time finding steady work, Bill pours his frustrated energy into coming up with schemes to make a quick buck and policing sugar in Sue's meals.
It's the arrival of Bill's ex-girlfriend, Julie ( Alex Fisher ), who prompts all three to look back at their happier times. Julie is back in town for a family wedding, and her seeking out of Bill brings on will-they-won't-they questions about rekindling their past love. But it turns out that Bill has got himself mixed up with a Best Buy employee named Casey ( a petulant Juliana Liscio ), so his future undoubtedly will not be a brighter one.
Schwend's drama is fairly even-keel throughout, and director Will Crouse appropriately matches the play's tone. With such an amazing performance coming from Monts-Bologna, the rest of the cast pale by comparison even though they're all doing very good work.
Kelleher's take on Bill genuinely shows his concern for his mother, though I wanted more visible frustration and fear from himespecially when his underhanded idea to make money falls apart. I also would have liked to see some more insecurities with Fisher's Julie as she returns to the place of her carefree teenage years. It's true that Julie is supposed to appear far more put-together than Bill since she was able to find a new life in Garland, Texas. But the very fact that Julie chooses to spend time with such "damaged goods" as Bill could have shown up more in Fisher's performance.
Poor Theatre's realization of the suburban malaise in Schwend's Take Me Back neatly extends to the homey set by designer Alan Schwanke and the amazing sound design of Eric Backus that conjures up the town's limited opportunities. But most importantly, it's Monts-Bologna's performance of Sue that grounds the production in a specific place and time since she herself fits in so perfectly with the Oklahoma milieu.