A Red Orchid explores relationships and religion with In Quietness

Photo by Evan Hanover

How realistic is it that a driven, jet-setting executive would suddenly walk away from her job, her life, her education, and her beliefs to try to become a subservient Christian homemaker? How about if her shocking decision, derided by friends and family, comes at the behest of a husband who has just admitted to her that he has had a long-standing affair that has only ended due to an auto accident that left his mistress in a coma? Likely or not, this is the premise of Anna Ouyang Moench’s play In Quietness, now playing in a world premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, directed by AROT’s resident genius dado, who explores its complex issues with the kind of genuine empathy that comes from simply accepting the author’s premise instead of questioning its logic, as I’m doing. In this play, dado and her stellar cast take us inside a relationship solution that might strike many as confusing but here, with the help of a script that calls out its own absurdity, might create in them some new insight as they tumble down its rabbit-hole.

OK, I admit it: I am an unabashed liberal and, to the extent that I am religious at all, my faith resides in Unitarian Universalism, which demands of its members not to blindly follow someone else’s theology but instead to build their own. Nonetheless, I found that this deep dive into the Southern Baptist mindset continually fascinated me, mostly due to the lead performance of Brittany Burch as Max, the aforementioned executive who finds herself immersed in the lifestyle of women who don’t shy away from the word “obey” in their marriage vows and instead strive to “learn in quietness and full submission” to their husbands, as the Bible urges in 1 Timothy.

This more “traditional” view of marriage is represented by Alexandra Chopson’s Beth, a younger woman who seems to have bought into it hook, line, and sinker. But Beth, like Max, is hardly a one-note character adhering to a set of rules for life without questioning. Max’s very presence at this Baptist training school for wives shows her willingness to try someone outside of her belief system, and Burch is incredible here, often saying more without words than with, whether sincerely trying to learn housewifely tasks and habits or boldly but silently asserting her disbelief in what she is seeing. (A late play staredown across a table, after she learns that even avowed Baptists sometimes play loose with their rules, is as remarkable a piece of “face acting” as you are ever likely to see.)

For her part, Chopson’s Beth appears to be an idealizing true believer, but there is a part of her that can’t quite handle the fact that she knows she has a “calling” to the ministry but cannot act on it due to her faith’s regulations. Chopson gives her character as much of an inner conflict as Burch’s, even if it is less obvious and mostly manifests as a young woman’s desire to proselytize her beliefs, especially when she sees others falling short of the mark. Beth’s inner anger drives her every bit as much as Max’s growing conviction that she has signed into some kind of school for Stepford Wives. Both actors have great fun with their roles and inner conflicts, though, whether it is Beth leaning over the end of a bunkbed to explain how to be a wife to the older and more experienced Max or Max’s broadly comic attempts to clean windows.

There are three other actors in this play. Joe Edward Metcalfe plays Max’s born-again husband Paul, who is studying to become a minister. (Apparently, the flagrant adultery doesn’t disqualify him, but why should it when so many famous evangelists have succumbed to the temptation?) Kirsten Fitzgerald gives one of her usual standout performances as Terri, the woman in charge of the Homemaking House at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth (which is a real place). And Adam Shalzi provides a bit of both pathos and physical comedy in his late scene as Beth’s fiancé Dusty. Of the three, Moench gives the most background to Paul. Not only do we see him with Max at home, but we also see him sitting in a hospital room as his erstwhile mistress lies in an unforgiving coma. (Set Designer Grant Sabin has allowed for multiple defined locations on A Red Orchid’s small space, and Sound Designer Jeffrey Levin keeps the sound of the heart monitor loud enough to be in the foreground but not to overpower Metcalfe’s tearful monologues.)

Moench’s script and dado’s direction allow the audience multiple possible ways to interpret and react to all of this. In Quietness won’t settle any left vs. right religious wars, but it will definitely make you think.

In Quietness is now playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N.. Wells St, Chicago, until March 3rd. Performance times vary; check the website at aredorchidtheatre.org Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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