Reading the Signals: MICHAEL & EDIE at Villanova

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Villanova Theatre continues their current season with an area premiere of MICHAEL & EDIE by Rachel Bonds. The production is being directed by Philly actor/playwright—and newly appointed Villanova Professor—James Ijames. The titular characters bury themselves amongst the shelves of the book store where they work to escape the tensions of the rest of their lives. In this maze of books, they manage to make magic happen—briefly forgetting their gruff boss, as well as the darker parts of their lives … And two lost 20-somethings come of age. MICHAEL & EDIE was the 2010 “Critic’s Pick” by the New York Times, which called Bonds’ writing “sublime” and “compelling.” Hailed by reviewers as “witty, funny and honest,” it appears  Bonds is fast becoming an artist immensely tuned into the sense of disconnect felt by Millennials and Gen Xers.

Set in what appears to be a New York City vintage book store, MICHAEL & EDIE opens on Michael’s first day. He is instantly smitten with co-worker Edie, in spite of her reserved, stand-offish manner. As they shelve the books, he composes love letters to her. His reveries are often interrupted by their snarky boss, John, who doesn’t seem to like anybody, and may have some nefarious dealings going on. As the play unfolds, we see Michael and Edie struggling to get through each day—both at work and at home. It soon becomes evident that both have family issues to deal with; Michael’s are revealed more clearly: his teenaged sister is battling depression back in his hometown and their parents seem to be clueless as to how to help. Edie’s loss takes longer to be clarified. We see her in her apartment with a young man named Ben, but don’t find out his connection until well into the story. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll stop there.

James Ijames makes an impressive Villanova directorial debut, eliciting strong, grounded performances from his cast of five. Bonds’ script is an amalgam of quirky comedy, flights of fantasy and deep felt loss; Ijames handles this challenging potpourri beautifully. The flow from moment to moment is smooth and easy, and the pace never lags. He and his actors know how to play the silences as strongly as the words—for in this story, what’s NOT said is as achingly important as what is.

Mitchell Bloom is terrific as Michael, capturing the character’s awkwardness and insecurities to a tee. I’ve seen Bloom in a number of productions now, and he never disappoints. As Edie, Sophia Barrett does a fantastic job of showing us a young woman hiding her grief under a façade of detachment. “I feel too much, so it’s better I show no feelings at all.” Been there… She and Bloom play off of each other perfectly, showing the viewer a true sense of two people trying to figure it all out. Ijames has given them some wonderfully timed non-verbal moments of that initial discomfort when you’re first in a social situation with someone.

The production belongs to Barrett and Bloom, but they receive solid support from the other three actors in the piece. John Baxter serves as the comic relief in the role of book store owner John. A master at lurking in the shadows, or appearing unexpectedly, Baxter mines the comedy without veering into buffoonery. Kyle Fennie plays the mysterious Ben, who advises Edie in her private moments. Fennie brings great depth and warmth to his role. Sarah Ochocki handles the challenging role of Michael’s younger sister, Sarah, quite deftly, blending the wry humor of a Juno-like young woman with the fears of young woman adrift.

As always, impeccable technical support has been provided by Villanova’s design team. Meghan Jones’ scenic design makes great use of the Vasey stage, while conquering the challenge of its deep thrust. Jerold R. Forsyth has done another top-notch lighting design, creating mystical moods when needed and evoking the moods of New York City. Jennifer Lanyon’s costumes suit each character perfectly, offering hints to their personalities. Finally, John Stovicek’s soundscape beautifully underscores each moment, eliciting emotional responses from the viewer as we watch this heartfelt story unfold.

MICHAEL & EDIE is a beautifully written and thoughtfully directed production that will have you thinking about it for days afterwards. This is a sincerely felt examination of loss and how we cope that may be uncomfortable for some. But it’s important to have theatre that touches elemental issues in our lives. I highly recommend heading to Villanova to catch this one.

by Rachel Bonds
Directed by James Ijames
February 10—22, 2015
Villanova Theatre—Vasey Hall
800 Lancaster Avenue (at Ithan Ave.)
Villanova, PA 19085

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