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‘The Realization of Emily Linder’ at Redtwist: Mom’s ready for death, but not without toes

Submitted by on May 19, 2016 – 11:13 am

Emily (Kathleen Ruhl) shares a moment with her lawyer daughter Janet (KC Karen Hill.) (Jan Ellen Graves)

Review: “The Realization of Emily Linder” by Richard Strand, at Redtwist Theatre through May 22. ★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Life, suggests Richard Strand’s play “The Realization of Emil Linder,” is like a stack of DVDs. What’s in it for you depends on how you look at it. That warm and fuzzy proposition, couched within dark comedy, makes for an amusing if fairly bizarre night out at Redtwist Theatre.

Margaret (Debra Rodkin) clutches her first draft of her mother's eulogy, and a supporting bagel. (Jan Ellen Graves).

You might think of this sharply drawn portrait of an aging mother and her two adult daughters, directed by Hans Fleischmann, as a poster play for – what’s that catchy phrase? – family values. Emily (that’s Mom, implacably cheerless and ever reproving in the person of Kathleen Ruhl), is seventyish and wheelchair-bound and just back from a hospital stay. She announces that she’s going to die in the next couple of days.

And just how, ask the daughters in chorus – Janet (KC Karen Hill), an attorney as high-powered and decisive as she is lean, and Margaret (Debra Rodkin), the roly-poly underachiever – does their infirm but hardly failing mother know the end is at hand? A premonition perhaps? A revelation, an epiphany?

No, no, none of those things. A realization. Emily has experienced the unexplainable but indisputable realization that death awaits her, and very soon.

Lawyer Janet (KC Karen Hill) squeezes the hospital to return her mother's toes. (Jan Ellen Graves)

And therefore she has drawn up a list of assignments for these two women, her beloved off-spring. Margaret, the one who has probably never known her mother’s approval in her entire life, will write the eulogy – so that Emily can approve it. And Janet, brilliant and reliable Janet, will pen the obituary.

The to-do list continues: Emily wants to have her wedding dress cleaned, and she wants some balloons with a tank of helium for blowing them up. And most important, she wants her toes back. Her diseased, lately amputated toes. She wants Janet to retrieve them from the hospital so they can be cremated with the rest of her.

Say what? Mom is kidding, right? Not at all. Emily acknowledges that getting her toes back could be a little tricky; that’s why she put Janet down for the job. Emily made the right choice. Behold Hill’s portrait of a relentless lawyer in action: slyly histrionic and vaguely threatening .

So off the grown-up girls go to try to do something right for Mom. Margaret’s first loving pass at a eulogy gets rejected out of hand. Rodkin paints a believable “other” daughter, a perpetual failure in her mother’s eyes. Not just in words, but in a wounded voice and exasperated body English does Rodkin convey the despair in Margaret’s soul.

Emily (Kathleen Ruhl) and daughter Margaret (Debra Rodkin) watch 'Cat Ballou' again. (Jan Ellen Graves)

This would be a good place to mention who, or what, Emily Linder once was, I mean when she probably wasn’t fawning over her daughters: a professor of French literature. She was a prof both esteemed and beloved by her thousands of students – her intellectual children, as it were.

Ruhl plays the sober, slightly sullen, distracted and distant mom with a closely measured evenness. The old woman is completely self-centered. Whatever tenderness she may once have possessed or displayed has drained away. The coldness of death seems already to be upon her. While Ruhl’s Emily is dryly funny, when viewed from the perspective of the two daughters, this wacky business can be unsettling to watch.

Though long since retired, Emily keeps a fresh-looking copy of Proust’s remembrance epic “À la recherche du temps perdu” nearby. But mostly she sits in her living room (which the audience virtually shares in Redtwist’s intimate space) and watches television. Well, not exactly television. She watches a movie. One movie, the comedy western “Cat Ballou,” over and over and over. She likes it. She knows how it comes out. No surprises.

The new care-giver (Stephanie Shum) reminds Emily (Kathleen Ruhl) of a shared past. (Jan Ellen Graves)

Her daughters pester her to widen her cinematic horizons, but she likes this one, and that’s all she requires. When good-hearted Margaret brings her a stack of DVDs to explore, Emily just waves them off.

Janet also brings something: a new care-giver. Emily fired the last one. At first, this quiet young woman (Stephanie Shum) keeps a discreet distance, off to the side – paging through Emily’s Proust. Then, professional that she is, she begins to take charge, and indeed to square off with the astounded but impressed Emily. They actually have a shared history, which the youthful care-giver recounts privately in clear, direct French. Emily doesn’t remember. Truth is, she has forgotten most of her French — a little secret she has kept to herself, along with her pristine volume of Proust. This fluent girl remembers, though, for both of them.

Emily has a surprise in store for her unsuspecting daughters. And life has one up its sleeve for her.

Related Links:

  • Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
  • Preview of Redtwist Theatre’s complete 2015-16 season: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com

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