A more appropriate title for Take Me Back might be “Choices” or “Forks in the Road”. Bill (James Kautz) has recently returned home to his mother Sue (Charlotte Booker) after a four-year stint in federal prison. Billy, as his mother calls him, has made bad choices, ranging from giving acid to a twelve year old to stealing from a military base, the reason for his incarceration. I don’t usually pay much attention to the press release before reviewing a show, but the theme of the play given in the promotional material intrigued me – the impossibility of the American dream when surrounded by minimum wage jobs and chain stores. With this underdeveloped social topic, playwright Emily Schwend disappoints. Her skirting around the core issue makes this work feel incomplete.
Take Me Back is really a slice-of-life “kitchen sink” play about the dear relationship of a Muskogee, Oklahoma mother and her wayward son. Sue works as a school lunch lady, drives a Cadillac, and spends all her time at home watching the game show channel. She is diabetic, addicted to sugar, and hides candy from Billy who incessantly hollers at her about eating herself to death. Ma knows her son is at heart a good boy, despite his mistakes. When he is fired from his first homecoming job at a restaurant for not revealing his prison record, Billy embarks on making another whopping bad decision.
Billy drops a fleeting remark about townspeople he used to know who ignore him. There could be more plot points that elucidate the difficulty of survival, not only for returning inmates but for the American underclass. He leaps from losing the restaurant job to a life of crime, without attempting another legitimate step in between.
The realism created by Ms. Schwend and director Jay Stull in the kitchen/living room set will draw you in. The dialogue between Sue and Billy is snappy and funny, even on serious topics like Sue’s diabetes and Billy’s wrong turns. The opening scene with Sue and Billy pops. One of the flaws of Take Me Back is that the conversation sags in the middle with repetition. There is talk of action without much of it.
Billy’s former girlfriend, now-married Julie (Boo Killebrew) comes to see him while visiting town for a family wedding. They almost have sex on the sofa like the old days, but she stops it. Realizing that Billy will never change, Julie returns one last time to tell him they can’t go back. Rounding out the fine cast is Billy’s partner in crime Casey (Jay/Katie Eisenberg), a transgender Best Buy employee whose insider access facilitates their caper.
Don’t get me wrong. This is nicely staged, well timed directing by Jay Stull. The actors impeccably create their roles and “are” these characters. There is no question that Emily Schwend is a talented writer.
Oh, the little things that stir up small town folk. Sue is obsessed with her (unseen) neighbor’s disobedience of the city ban on Friday lawn watering. The neighbor constantly complains about Billy’s broken down truck being parked at the curb. She finally has the police tow it. The truck is loaded with $10K worth of MacBook Pro laptops from the Best Buy storeroom. Billy wants to set Ma up with home deliveries before he hits the road. But does he leave? Do the cops get him? The play ends on Sue and Billy on the sofa. We must fill in the blanks. Unfinished writing or artistic flair? You be the judge.
Take Me Back
By Emily Schwend; directed by Jay Stull; sets by Greg Kozatek and George Hoffman; lighting by Nick Houfek; sound by Amy Altadonna; stage manager, Kaitlin Nemeth; assistant stage managers, Gwen Hornig and Claire Uschersohn; press rep, Karen Greco; show art, Jonny Ruzzo; producer, Doug Murphy. Presented by The Kindling Theatre Company. At Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street, between Broadway and Church Street. SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com. Through March 22. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes with no intermission.
WITH: Charlotte Booker (Sue), James Kautz (Bill), Boo Killebrew (Julie), Jay Eisenberg (Casey).