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A Vision of Heaven Without Easy Answers
Reviewed by Jacob Davis

Scientifically-minded religious skeptics are supposed to be willing to accept new evidence of an afterlife, if any is ever found. But what could really count as “evidence” of such a thing? In her 2016 slice-of-life drama Going to a Place Where You Already Are, playwright Bekah Brunstetter explores how an irreligious family is disrupted by the impending death of one of its members, who suddenly becomes convinced that she’s going to a better place. She’s at peace, but the others aren’t.

A Repressed Need Comes to the Fore
The play opens with Roberta (Kathleen Ruhl) and her husband, Joe (Art Fox) attending the funeral of someone who barely even counted as an acquaintance. They’ve come to pay their respects, but struggle not to display any outward sign of contempt at the speakers’ very sensual description of the spirit world. Roberta also points out the Yogi Berra-style logic of attending other peoples’ funerals so that they’ll attend yours. But she becomes more bothered by her own observation until she breaks down in tears and confesses that there’s a part of her that still desperately wants to believe in heaven.

Shortly later, while undergoing an MRI, Roberta has a near-death experience. The MRI finds inoperable late-stage cancer, but she truly isn’t scared. While her brain was deprived of oxygen she met a psychopomp (Colin Quinn Rice) who assured her that everything would be alright, and she feels a sense of peace that has only grown stronger since she woke up. Joe struggles with this—he’s a scientist and can’t separate the concept of an afterlife from the god of the Old Testament or the oppression of organized religion. But Roberta’s visions don’t end there. She has another which addresses a major source of pain in her past and convinces her not to be reasoned out of believing what she sees is real.
Redtwist Theatre’s Ensemble Builds a Family
Kathleen Ruhl’s performance is endlessly charming, funny, and empathetic. She covers a vast range, from Roberta’s crises to her acceptance, suffused with the character’s steadfast pragmatism. Roberta’s confidence in her fate only makes her more determined to wrap up all her loose ends, which forces Joe and her step-granddaughter, Ellie (Abby Dillion) to confront things they’d rather not. Art Fox’s cantankerous performance matches Ruhl’s in charm and realism. Their interplay as an old couple still in love provides the show with a firm emotional foundation, even as the rift between their characters grows. After all, if Joe respects Roberta so much, why is he so opposed to her enlightened attitude toward mortality?

Brunstetter doesn’t attempt to tie everything neatly together. A sub-plot involves Ellie’s relationship with Jonas (Joel Rodriguez), a one-night stand she develops feelings for that she is reluctant to acknowledge because she is emotionally unavailable and he is disabled. Jonas’s atheism is more outwardly laid-back but anti-humanistic than Joe’s, and Ellie’s ethical philosophy in general is more fraught with guilt than Roberta’s. Under director Matt Hawkins’s direction, their grappling with life forms an important, but not intrusive addition to a story mostly about grappling with death. Brunstetter also doesn’t confirm whether Roberta had a real vision or not. She certainly had an extremely appealing one, filled not only with vividly-described bodily pleasures, but also the assurance that her biggest regret in life didn’t really cause any harm. It seems more than a little too-good-to-be-true, but nobody can deny that Roberta is coping far better than anyone else is. It seems that even a genuine belief in paradise doesn’t make death much less complicated.


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Recommended ★★★
Reviewed by Al Bresloff

Most of you know that I adore the work at Redtwist Theatre, that little “black box” on Bryn Mawr, where they continue to bring strong drama in an intimate setting. It is difficult not to, based on the work they continue to bring to their stage. Currently, they are presenting the Chicago premiere of a play that was a huge success at South Coast Rep, “Going To A Place Where You Already Are”, written by Bekah Brunstetter. It is a story about an older couple, Roberta (the always reliable Kathleen Ruhl) and Joe (deftly handled by Art Fox), who have become atheists questioning their beliefs and if in fact there might be a heaven in their future.

When Roberta finds out that she has some medical problems, and sees the “light” her ideals begin to change and although Joe attempts to convince her that there are no facts to substantiate the feelings she is having, due to some memories of her past life (before Joe), her thought process cannot be changed. There are some hidden facts from this review, as sharing them would take away from the power of the story that Brunstetter presents. I will tell you that there was a child in Roberta’s life and that Roberta and Joe have a grand-daughter. Well, not a real grand-daughter, but in fact a young girl that they helped raise who calls Roberta by her name and Joe “grandfather”. Her Name is Ellie (a solid performance by Abby Dillion).

Ellie is a work-from-home editor/writer who has no true relationships (other than the minimal one with Roberta and Joe, which will change as the 90 minute play progresses) until she meets Jonas (played to perfection by Joel Rodriguez). Jonas also works from home, and as a person with disability, has his own emotional problems to deal with. He has lived a life of rejection and when Ellie “picks him up” taking him to her home for the night, he finds a new meaning to life. For her, however, it was just a “slam-bam” one-nighter and she immediately cuts him off, emotionally.

As Ellie learns of her pseudo grand-mother’s health problem and goes to visit with her, her relationship with Jonas changes as does that with Roberta and Joe. There are some very emotional scenes in this small story, and, again, not wanting to give anything away, let me tell you that the story-line is rich and very strong as projected by director Matt Hawkins. One of the problems with a theater such as Red Twist and its very intimate stage, is using it to the best advantage. There are many scene changes in this production, and while the set is fairly simple (designed by Yeaji Kim) the number of changes makes it challenging for a director. How much time can we allow the audience to watch the set change and retain their focus on the story. In this production, the changes are done smoothly and without hesitation, so we never lose sight of where we are going with both story-lines (or are there three?).

There is another actor in this production. His name is Collin Quinn Rice, a newcomer to this company and one that I am sure we will be seeing more of in the years to come. He brings to life Angel ( as well as all the other roles that bring the puzzle pieces together) . Again, I cannot get into all of his portrayals, but will gladly tell you that each one is different from the others and he is a wonderful spirit on the stage. Welcome to Redtwist! As we get older, many of us look at the choices we have previously made and review if they were correct, or if they are still correct. Is there a Heaven? Is there an “after-life”? Does the soul go to a place where it can make sure those left behind are taken care of? Or, is it all just over? Brunstetter takes us deep into the inner mind of a person who is facing the end of their time and her choices, and are they right?

As someone who has been close to what could have easily been my end, and seeing what I think may have been the “light”, I often wonder if any of this is real. Did I see anything on that fateful night? Was I in shock? In this story, we have a person who gave up God and religion due to some failures in her youth. Married to a new husband, who is also a non-believer, they enjoy their lives and each other. When they are faced with changes, how difficult is it to review their thoughts and maybe see a different light? The one that tells that they may be wrong? This is a keenly directed production with five very skilled actors who truly feel the words of the playwright.

This is a play that deals with religious belief and makes it hard to rate, which is why I have only given it a “recommended”. Perhaps, prior to all this “critic schtick” that has taken place since “Pass Over”, I felt that this was enough. There is some humor in this gut-wrenching story about how one can look at what was previously decided and realize that the first choice may not have been what was destined to be the right one.


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Reviewed by Mary Shen Barnidge

Rare is the human being who has not grappled with the mystery of death and its aftermath. Cultural speculations on the realms beyond the grave encompass simple regression to the earth ( as observed in animals ) and regeneration ( as observed in plants ), as well as elaborate recycling schemes involving transmigration into altered physical states. Christianity, however, promises its believers eternal liberation from corporal restraints within a mythic sanctuary—descriptions of which differ widely, no first-hand witness accounts ever having been reported.

Roberta and Joe have enjoyed 30 years of marriage, comfortable in their atheist rejection of conventional dogma, but attendance at the funerals endemic to their age bracket brings them into ever-increasing proximity with Protestant Christian gospel lore. One day, while undergoing an MRI for what will turn out to be cancer, Roberta has a momentary vision of a boyish concierge offering her entry into a domain he identifies as heaven. This precipitates a crisis of um, faith as Roberta contemplates the possibility of a future bereft of her beloved husband—misgivings shared by her granddaughter Ellie, whose recent love-at-first-sight epiphany also introduces uncertainty over the wisdom of investment in ephemeral joys.

Fiction exploring the boundaries of mortality tends to avoid knotty theological arguments in favor of whimsical fancies cobbled from a melange of spiritual hearsay. Bekah Brunstetter refuses to traffic in harps, wings or angels from Dubuque dancing on pins, though, instead zeroing in on the fundamental question of where we go after we leave here. The answer, it emerges, lies not in any particular sectarian creed, but in each individual's personal bliss. For Roberta, the paradise awaiting her is a place of favorite smells, sounds, foods—all the ice cream she wants—and eventually Joe, too, once he discovers where to look for her.

Even a cosmological approach as rational and egalitarian as Brunstetter's could quickly succumb to sticky sentimentality in the wrong hands, but director Matt Hawkins never allows his actors to engage in stereotypal cuddliness, whether of the geriatric, millennial or ambisexual varieties. Kathleen Ruhl and Art Fox anchor an ensemble making the most of Redtwist's tiny studio space ( no easy task when stage furnishings include a laptop screen, a hospital bed and a motorized wheelchair ) to invoke a cozy intimacy belying the weighty issues under scrutiny.


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Reviewd by Hugh Iglarsh, New City Stage

Uneasy Endings

As Bekah Brunstetter’s play “Going to a Place Where You Already Are” begins, Roberta and Joe, two dyed-in-the-wool atheists, exchange sarcastic comments as they suffer through the church funeral of a workplace acquaintance of Joe. Trying to sum up his deceased wife’s life in his eulogy, the offstage widower does the best he can, ending with, “That woman could bake.”

It’s a funny-sad-real moment, pointing to the play’s subtext: the inability of postmodern, technology-addicted humanity to deal in any meaningful way with mortality. In a relentlessly positive and pragmatic culture, death remains the big bummer, the lemon that can’t be turned into lemonade. Death for us is not only tragic, it’s downright awkward.

In the world of “Going to a Place,” death—like religion—is treated basically as a bad joke, until it confronts Roberta in the form of late-stage cancer. Not only is she dying but she’s also having visions of eternal bliss, complete with a youthful and somewhat anxious angel (Collin Quinn Rice). “There’s been a mistake,” insists Roberta to the angel. “Neither my husband nor I believe in heaven.”

But the visions recur, to the exasperation of her implacably rational husband, who cloaks his denial in endless busyness. Roberta’s sudden atheistic apostasy also affects her step-granddaughter Ellie, an unhappy, commitment-phobic millennial (played with twitchy intensity by Abby Dillion) in an ambivalent relationship with the physically challenged but emotionally solid Jonas (Joel Rodriguez, who gives his all to this sympathetic but static part).

The first seventy-five minutes or so of this ninety-minute, sans-intermission play flow nicely, as Kathleen Ruhl, an actress who defines the concept of stage presence, draws us into Roberta’s initial perplexity and growing sense of confidence and acceptance. Director Matt Hawkins gives a tangy, lifelike quality to the interplay between Roberta and Art Fox’s Joe, as the couple struggles not only with impending loss but also with Joe’s dawning realization that he doesn’t know his wife at all—and that she knows him all too well. The couple’s pointed and passionate dialogue succeeds as both character study and drama of ideas.

Unfortunately, the final scenes disrupt the play’s delicate structure. Tension gives way to sentimentality as Roberta nears her reward and heaven—looking like a set from an Olsen Twins TV special—is revealed. It’s pure syrupy wish-fulfillment, which confusingly seems to confirm Joe’s position on faith while simultaneously contradicting it. The bottom-line lesson to be drawn here is that in drama, as in life, endings are never easy.


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