When our lives begin to unravel, we often turn to friends, therapists, or support groups for advice and comfort. The married couple at the center of Anna Ouyang Moench’s play In Quietness, now having its Chicago premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, looks instead to a Southern, Bible-based school for women who aspire to be June Cleaver homemakers and submissive wives to strong, bread-winning men. A premise like that could easily make for a scathing condemnation of organizations (like the real one referenced in this play) that espouse what many consider to be antiquated notions of the marriage contract. But Moench and director dado have cast this provocative and often hilarious play without villains, and instead chosen to tease out the suppressed motivations and traumas that its characters at times try to sweep quietly under the rug.
Career-driven Max (Brittany Burch) doesn’t know anything about cleaning, cooking, or giving adequate attention to her somewhat sad-sack husband, Paul (Joe Edward Metcalfe). He seeks solace from his absent wife in Jesus, a church group, and the arms of another woman, who is in an accident that Paul feels responsible for. Racked with guilt, he decides to move to Fort Worth, Texas, and become a preacher as penance. Max, in an attempt to save her marriage, gives up her job and goes with him, enrolling in a training center for good Christian housewives presided over by the perfectionist Miss Terri (Kirsten Fitzgerald).
The way Moench gets independent-minded, religion-indifferent Max to sign on to this usual undertaking pushes the limits of credulity, but the rest of the play dives into a fascinating and eyebrow-raising world where “traditional” roles of husband and wife are the norm. When Max arrives at the Homemaking House (simple but effective set by Grant Sabin), she meets Beth (Alexandra Chopson), a true believer who thinks that a wife has no right to deny a husband sex when he wants it. She claims to be engaged to a real hard-ass named Dusty (Adam Shalzi), but as Max and Beth work through a 12-page list of cleaning duties, the truth about their men and their own neuroses gets pulled from under the bed.
There are fine performances all around. Metcalfe plays the unsympathetic Paul with a sullenness that is too sad to get mad at, and Shalzi makes a touchingly awkward appearance as Dusty (he’s not at all what we were expecting). Burch, however, stands out as the strong-willed Max, torn between her love of her husband and her feeling that this whole setup is a crock. In one hilarious scene, she sprays half a bottle of Windex onto a pane of glass seemingly because she has no idea what she’s doing, but we get the feeling that she’s trying to get more than just a squeaky shine.
Excellent and hilarious too is Fitzgerald as Miss Terri, who, wearing a pink Southern lady power suit (costumes by Kotryna Hilko), extols the virtues of a strong husband and a submissive wife while celebrating her IKEA purchases as if she were in a paid ad. Chopson’s memorable performance makes us roll our eyes at Beth’s beliefs even as we sympathize with her ambivalent emotions surrounding her demanding faith and the unconventional man she loves.
The play is bookended by two dark, dreary scenes in the hospital room where Paul’s lover lies comatose; we only know of her existence from the beep of a heart monitor (sound by Grant Sabin). But what happens between those scenes over an hour and 45 minutes offers a captivating look into marriage roles that may have fallen out of the mainstream but that for some might make for a tidy arrangement.