It's a Horrible Life | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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It's a Horrible Life


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Cypress Group

at the Eclipse Theater Company

In an unnamed hospital a wounded soldier lies hooked up to machines that keep him alive. His arms and legs already amputated, he lies in limbo, clutching feebly at his memories. When the faith and determination of a noble doctor allow him to rise from his coma into semiconsciousness, his sole request is to return to what remains of his family--a request he can make only by banging his head against the table in a crude rendition of Morse code. But his wish cannot be granted, for those in charge at the hospital assert that the shock the soldier's family would experience at his return far outweighs any rights the quadruple amputee might still possess. This is the final injustice visited upon this tragic figure, who gives up any hope of returning to the world and slips forever into his memories.

Jeffrey Lieber's Coming Back, inspired by blacklisted novelist Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, presents the brief, grim life of a naive, awkward young man. Robert had dreamt of playing the saxophone and settling down to a quiet life with his bright-eyed girlfriend Lillian, but after returning home for his mother's funeral he abandoned his hopeful fantasies and joined the Army, where he was critically wounded in battle.

Robert's story is told in fragments: Lieber cuts back and forth between scenes of Robert lying comatose in a military hospital as his idealistic doctor Anna plays the piano to try to awaken him, and flashbacks of Robert's life triggered in him by Anna's music. But this is no unrealistic portrait of the beauties of home contrasted with the horrors of war--Lieber shows us a family where little battles were fought daily. Between the father who demanded too much and gave too little and the loving mother who was taken from him too soon, Robert seems to have led an unjust life. Nevertheless, memories of the small pleasures he's experienced enable him to survive for a time, hoping to know these joys again: the warmth of sunlight, the touch of a human hand, music.

Moving stuff, to be sure. A touch manipulative and maudlin as well. Coming Back plays rather like a 90-minute version of Emily's "Good-bye, World" speech in Our Town, capturing all its gripping emotion and its calculated tugging of heartstrings. It's hard to beat the subject matter for pure emotional impact--anyone who's not moved by Robert's first attempt at skull-drummed Morse code should be checked for vital signs--but at times it feels overdone: too much of a dismal thing. The playwright seeks to celebrate the world's simple beauties even in the face of great gloom, but virtually every moment seems unwaveringly dim. There are some intriguing philosophical ideas in Coming Back, particularly on the subject of what constitutes a human being and how to preserve human dignity. There are also some moments of tense drama, especially as Anna tries to break into the dark corners of Robert's mind. Lieber's story is crisp, well paced, and professional, but to me it was too dirgelike, like It's a Wonderful Life told by a depressive. You could call it "It's Not Such a Wonderful Life, But Take What You're Given."

Coming Back is well served by the Cypress Group's fine-tuned, clean production, directed by John Nicholson. Daria Martel as Anna and Lieber himself as Robert are particularly powerful, and the rest of the ensemble turn in good work. Though Elizabeth McGeehan's scenic design practically blocks both fire exits, it also makes effective use of the Eclipse Theater's cramped space, giving Lieber's play an appropriately claustrophobic feel.

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