Redtwist Theatre’s PURPLE HEART Could Use A Transplant


purple-heart-11Sitting through the laborious two hours of Redtwist Theatre’s production of Bruce Norris’ Purple Heart one ponders the question of how the powers that be thought this haphazard play would be a good fit for this venerable ensemble theatre company.  It is not often that a show misfires on every level, but this is one of them.  Initially commissioned by Steppenwolf in 2002 and staged by Anna Shapiro with the great Laurie Metcalf in the lead, Mr. Norris’ play depicts a fragmented and dysfunctional family unit during the Vietnam War.   The four person piece revolves around Carla (KC Karen Hill) whose hubby is killed in action and is now left to raise their troubled pre-teenage boy, Thor (Nicholas Roget-king) alone.  Well, not quite alone as Carla’s obnoxious mother-in-law Grace (Kathleen Ruhl) has moved in to “help”.  Carla’s addiction to all things liquor has taken hold and when Purdy (Clay Sanderson), a supposed military buddy of her husband enters, the already odd play goes off the chart.   

That is not to say that Purple Heart is unworthily to be staged but the mediocre material is clearly over the capabilities of director Jimmy McDermott and the cast.  The dialogue is intended to be done at a rapid fire pace where the audience is constantly playing catch-up thereby giving the actors their undivided attention.   The sentences are written to be as fragmented as the family itself which gives the play its heft.  Moreover, the characters need to be able to talk past each other while still paying attention to the underlying pathos Mr. Norris has in store for them.  Unfortunately, this pathos never materializes as the blocking constantly interferes with the overall pacing (there were entire scenes where all I viewed was an actor’s back and ass) and the actors are constantly fumbling over their own lines (and each others).  Many scenes are lost entirely, especially the one’s in which Thor is supposed to interrogate his elders, which should play out like a ping-pong match.  Instead it is like watching Macaulay Culkin question John Candy in “Uncle Buck”.

Mr. McDermott and his design team have also neglected some simple details, which for a small space is essential. Christopher Burpee’s lighting design is at times blinding to first few rows of the theatre; Costume designer Rachel S. Parent’s inauthentic military uniform for Purdy is ill-fitting coupled with the fact that no soldier would step out of the house with unpolished shoes; Finally, the actors take an interminable amount of time doing their off-stage actions, adding to the already poor pacing issues.

Whether Redtwist is trying to capitalize on Mr. Norris’ recent accolades since being awarded the Pulitzer for the far superior Clybourne Park, or because this was just a show that just never quite materialized the way it should of for this theatre company, the New Year is now upon us and we can put this all in our collective memory banks and wish for better in 2013.

Purple Heart plays through January 27, 2013 at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago.  For tickets call 773-728-7529 or visit  Running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes with a 10 minute intermission; Performances are Thursdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3pm.  For calendar information please visit