Bloomington Indiananow has at least two claims to fame. It is the setting for “Breaking Away”, the wonderful and underrated film by Peter Yates, and it is the town where Rachael Jones opened her café. This charming and perceptive one (wo)man play, Rachael’s Café, and the 1979 film share important common themes – the nature of personal identity and how it can be changed, and the relationship between parents and children.
This immensely engaging play is the story of Rachael’s personal journey and of the cafe she establishes where the sign over the counter is “Everyone Welcome – No Exceptions”. The story teller is Rachael Jones in her café, but in the world outside she is still Eric Wininger – most importantly, in the world of her children who are still coming to terms with their father’s decision to come out as a ”trans woman”.
The play is a monologue delivered as Rachael cleans up the café at the end of the day and prepares to set off for a school event where she will be with her three children. Her reflections about coming out and anecdotes about the reactions of family, friends and customers to her changes are interrupted by phone calls from family members. The key dramatic moment is when her younger daughter, who has found her father’s transition very difficult to acknowledge, rings up to say that she would be happy if she turns up as Rachael at the school that evening. She is of course delighted but she agonizes about whether to go as Eric or Rachael and this dilemma is discussed in phone conversations – of which we hear one side – with her son and her former wife
After an awkward first five minutes, which perhaps mirror the reaction of new customers when they first enter the café, Graham Elwell, portraying Rachael/Eric with total conviction and huge charm, draws the audience into his world and shares his story honestly with all its highs and lows. It’s a story of quiet personal courage and of humour. The humanity of Rachael shines through.
The performing space at the Old Red Lion is small and intimate yet the setting is very realistic, right down to the brownie offered to a lucky audience member at the front. Elwell is able to tell Rachael’s story in a quiet conversational manner that suits the subject and there is an effective lighting rig that instantly transforms the stage for some flashbacks.
The play deals with a subject that some people may find challenging but it does so in such a humane and honest way that it is difficult to imagine anyone in the audience feeling anything other than empathy with Rachael. If there is a criticism, it is that the play skirts around some issues that cry out for attention. Near the end of the play, Rachael tells us that, despite his wife’s sympathetic reaction to his new persona, they divorced after he found out about her affair with a mutual friend. Given that some key parts of the play are about the reaction of his children, we are left with some unanswered questions about the dynamics of the family through a very difficult time. This matters because by this stage of the play we feel that we know and like Rachael – but were we getting less than the whole truth?
See this play. It’s an enjoyable and thought provoking evening, illuminated by a performance of style and charm by Graham Elwell.