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Review: Therapy is Child's Play in Bess Wohl's Engrossing Drama MAKE BELIEVE

One of the tightest ensembles of actors you're apt to see applying their craft on a New York stage these days is the quartet of youngsters portraying siblings aged 5-12 in Bess Wohl's engrossing drama of childhood memories and survival tactics, Make Believe.

Make Believe
Casey Hilton, Ryan Foust, Harrison Fox
and Maren Heary (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Directed by Michael Greif and scripted with a sensitive ear for youthful subtext, they occupy the stage unaccompanied by adults for the first half of the piece's 85-minutes, primarily engaged in play that reveals the emotional pain they're not quite able to understand they're experiencing.

It's the 1980s and the suburban Conlee kids spend the hours between school and dinner in their attic playroom, an inviting enclave as depicted by designer David Zinn, stuffed with toys and books and colorful posters. There's a proper table with chairs for doing homework as well as a large plastic version of a wooden cabin for hiding out and pretending.

The play begins with seven-year-old Addie (sweet and sensitive Casey Hilton) tending to the needs of her Cabbage Patch Doll. Her five-year-old brother, Carl (cute and playful Harrison Fox), pretends to be a ghost with a white sheet over his head. Other ghosts appear; the kind that might haunt an adult in the decades to come.

"There's supposed to be a snack. In the kitchen," demands Chris (aggressive and bossy Ryan Foust), age 12, who just came home to find no food waiting for him. "When I get home from soccer, I come in, and, on the table: there is my snack."

His anger replicates the stereotypical reaction of a self-centered husband, shocked to come home from work to see no supper ready for him.

Sister Kate (level-headed Maren Heary), age 10, is busy with her homework and only pays enough attention to scold him when his language gets too salty.

Dad is away on one of his many business trips and the lack of a snack waiting for Chris is the first sign that mom might have also gone elsewhere. Whenever the downstairs phone rings the kids put their ears to the floor and hear messages confirming her disappearance.

In their own private retreat, a certain family dynamic has developed among the children, with Chris and Kate as parental figures, sometimes mimicking what they have with their actual mom and dad, sometimes filling in what's missing. As the play progresses, their game evolves from cute to a serious form of improvised therapy.

"I know where you go, when you go on your business trips," says Kate, confronting Chris. "I know what you do. I know you're not doing business... You're watching television! The boob tube!"

"I wouldn't have to watch it if you weren't so ugly," Chris retorts.

Make Believe
Kim Fischer, Susannah Flood, Samantha Mathis
and Brad Heberlee (Photo: Joan Marcus)

As hours turn to days, their concern is less about their parents and more about what is going to happen to them. Chris goes out to find food, but Kate is concerned about the kids being discovered without adult supervision.

"They'll call the orphanages and they'll take us, and separate us, and put us in cages."

The adults take over for the second half of the play, but to reveal exactly who Kim Fischer, Susannah Flood, Brad Heberlee and Samantha Mathis are playing reveals plot points best kept secret for now. They're back in the attic and while facts are slowly revealed, some may be unreliably foggy memories.

During one of his more compassionate moments, young Chris reassured the worried Kate, "This is just our childhood. We are not even going to remember most of this stuff when we grow up."

"We just have to get through this. And get to be grown-ups. And then everything is going to be amazing."

Getting on with your life as though you can pretend something didn't happen may be the biggest challenge to confront in Make Believe.

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