Maybe we can chalk it up to a mid-life crisis…or, maybe, Wheeler is just a self-loathing man who’d just assume sabotage his own happiness rather opting to wallow in self-pity. In Steppenwolf’s Linda Vista, a new play debut by Tracy Letts and directed by Dexter Bullard, we get a very funny, and highly realistic, account of a man who has seemingly given up on life and love.
Wheeler (Ian Bradford) has moved from a cot in his wife’s garage to his own apartment in the Linda Vista apartment complex. With a soured marriage and an estranged relationship with his son coming to an end, Wheeler has the opportunity to start fresh, but that’s much more difficult than it sounds – at least it is for him. As we get to know Wheeler, a former Sun-Times photographer with promise who now holds onto a routine job as a camera repairman, we see someone who has been riddled with repercussions that have stemmed from a series of poor choices. Wheeler resents his soon-to-be-ex-wife for having him leave his Chicago life for California to be closer to her family. He resents his son for - well, just getting in the way of his life. He resents happy people. Hell, he resents Radiohead. But Wheeler has accepted his current situation – a cynical alcoholic that shoots down other people’s hopes and dreams, believing he is a “piece of shit” who “doesn’t deserve to be happy”.
Wheeler’s best friend Paul (Tim Hopper) and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy), friends from their college days, haven’t given up on him. They want to find him a partner who can bring out the old Wheeler who once had dreams and ambitions himself. When Paul and Margaret set Wheeler up with a friend of theirs, Jules (Cora Vander Broek), who is bright and bouncy, Wheeler reluctantly accepts and, as you can probably imagine, he has a few skeptical things to say after finding out she is a life coach. This, of course, threatens a man who wants a simple, joyless existence. Complicating matters for Wheeler, he takes in Minnie (Kahyun Kim), a twenty-four-year old rockabilly enthusiast recently kicked out of her own apartment in the same complex by her abusive boyfriend.
The play is very truthful. It is about regret, wrecked opportunities and the consequences of unfortunate decisions. It is about letting oneself spin out of control, essentially giving up, and the struggle to choose happiness - a challenge when becoming so distant. But is also about hope and the chance to change for the better. In Wheeler, we are given a lovable “asshole” that we must root for.
Ian Barford is tremendous as Wheeler. Barford quickly draws in the audience, grabs them and never lets go. Convincing, humorous and often decidedly heartfelt, Barford captures the essence of his self-deprecating character so well, we can’t help but think of a few “Wheeler’s” we know ourselves. Tim Hopper does fine work and is believable as Wheeler’s tolerable, but supportive, best friend as does Sally Murphy, both nicely adding to the play’s humor (I’ll just say karaoke bar scene).
While Kahyun Kim is brassy and nails the too-cool-for-school attitude as Minnie, Cora Vander Broek is sparkles as Jules, perfectly pairing with Barford as his counterpart in a true positive/negative kind of relationship. We are also taken to the camera shop where Wheeler plugs away all day fixing one camera after another under the supervision of his crass boss Michael (Troy West), who is just waiting for a sexual harassment lawsuit to be filed against him as he repeatedly gawks and spews inappropriate comments at his clerk, Anita (Caroline Neff).
A revolving set takes us inside Wheeler’s California apartment, his workplace and to a bar. He lives simply, and that’s all he wants, DVDs of Stanley Kubrick littering his media stand and a refrigerator most likely only filled with a couple six-packs and a box of Arm & Hammer.
Linda Vista is a well-acted ride into Wheeler’s uncertainties on turning fifty with the realization that his best years have long since passed. It is a play equipped with a stellar cast, a very funny script that is also genuine and even moving at times and direction that is so precise we can easily identify with each of Letts’ characters.
Very highly recommended.
Linda Vista is being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 21st. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.steppenwolf.org.
*Note – This play does contain full frontal nudity and sexual simulation.
*Extended through May 28th
“What do you see when you look at me?”
That was the final line of Steve Harmon (Daniel Kyri) from the stage adaptation of the best-selling book Monster.
Monster is an award-winning novel by Walter Dean Myers and has been adapted by Aaron Carter. The show tells the story of African American teenager Steve Harmon, an aspiring filmmaker, who is on trial for felony murder.
The show takes the inner monologue of Steve as he deals with being on trial for a murder that he says he was not part of. Since Steve is an aspiring filmmaker he tells the story as if it were lifted from a script that he is writing, using terms like “Close on”, “Cut To”, and “Fade In.” The show itself tries to tackle the issues of race, the public perception of race, masculinity, as well as the justice system itself.
“While the play does deal with the criminal justice system and notions of guilt and innocence, to me, the most active thing about the book is examining how people perceive young black men,” says adapter Aaron Carter.
The idea might be there, but the execution of the idea seems to fall short. Yes, African American men are incarcerated at a much higher rate than any other race. Currently, according to the NAACP, African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million incarcerated population. However, this play does not represent those kind of staggering statistics. The major scenes in the show take place in court, in jail, and in Steve’s home. The show focuses more on the idea of masculinity and what it is like to be a “man” in today’s society.
Steve tries to act tough in front of other gang members from the neighborhood, but behind closed doors Steve speaks about how he wants no part of that life. The only part I took away from the show, in terms of race relations, was that if you hire a white lawyer to be your attorney, it looks better for your character.
Aside from the adaptation issues this is still an important show to see. The reason being is that this show demonstrates how one decision can alter your path for the rest of your life. Steve is sixteen-years-old and if he is convicted he faces a prison sentence of twenty-five-years to life. This play can serve as important message for today’s youth. There will be connections made simply because the performances by the cast are what bring it all together.
Mr. Kyri brings Steve to life as he battles with what he wants and what he needs, creating for the audience a legitimate hope and fear. The rest of the cast take on various roles throughout the show proving their range as actors. Kenn E. Head is able to go from worried father in one scene and instantly transform into hardened criminal in the very next scene. Alana Arenas shines as a hardened assistant district attorney and also as Steve’s well-to-do mother.
Overall, this play speaks to many themes, but just not the one we thought it might choose. With excellent performances from a dynamic cast, Monster is worth seeing. The overall message may be muddled, and that is the hard part about this adaptation. There is a fine line to walk and only so much can be said in such a short amount of time. There are great pieces out there that continue the discussion of race, but this is not one of them unfortunately.
Monster is being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre through March 9th as its latest presentation for Young Adult. For tickets and/or more information, click here.
With a title like "Straight White Men" there's a lot to unpack. Asian American playwright Young Jean Lee directs her 2014 play at The Steppenwolf. "Straight White Men" ran Off-Broadway at the Public Theater to critical acclaim. It helped establish the career of up-and-comer Young Jean Lee. This production is a Midwestern debut.
The Steppenwolf's production is well cast. "Straight White Men" tells the story of a family of three brothers assembling with their aging father for Christmas. Hence the title. Madison Dirks plays the oldest brother Jake with a commanding intensity that serves to propel Lee's script. So much of Lee's play relies on an almost impossible sense of chemistry between the brothers. Ryan Hallahan plays youngest brother Drew with a contrasting sincerity that puts Brian Slaten (Matt) in the center of the 90-minute play. Ensemble member Alan Wilder as the dad is maybe the only one whose performance is not in on Lee's comic pattern.
"Straight White Men" does touch on many issues regarding race, gender and class in America. That said, perhaps not enough to warrant such a heavy title. There is a lot of humor and physical comedy between the brother characters, but so often the content of the dialogue doesn't reach further than the three walls of the set. The conclusion of the play is thought provoking and addresses the issue of socioeconomic privilege.
The problem with titling a play "Straight White Men" is that it raises the stakes for the playwright to deliver a work that makes a bold statement. Lee certainly does make a bold statement, it just may not live up to the title. Lee's script takes a while getting to the center of the matter. It's really a play about depression. In that regard, Lee really says something about the way student loans and societal expectations are stunting an entire generation. "Straight White Men" is a play to see as it will warrant a thoughtful post show discussion.
Through March 19 at Steppenwolf Theatre. 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650 www.Steppenwolf.org
*Update - Extended through March 26th
A tragedy is unfolding at Steppenwolf Theatre, a good thing for audiences, less so for the denizens of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians. In this show, with powerful performances by Glenn Davis, Shannon Cochran, Tom Irwin and Robert Brueler, the show stopper is Jacqueline Williams’ marvelous turn in the role of Congregant - she is a revelation.
Pastor Paul (Tom Irwin) is operating a mega- church, one that has grown exponentially from fundamentalist storefront to a building so big it has a coffee shop, retail store, and a parking lot you could get lost in. Exponential expansion incurred debt, which the board of directors, led by Elder Jay (Robert Breuler) has struggled to discharge.
The play opens amid a mega-church service rendered so faithfully - huge backlit cross, melodious music, passionately performed; a serious scripture read - that a number of audience members joined in the prayers. Pastor Paul then delivers the sermon that sows chaos: the church, he says, is at a turning point – it is now debt free; but something else has gone awry. He no longer believes in that pillar of dualist theology, hell fire. Irwin’s discursive recount of this radical change in heart is delivered with a hint of irony, and at a pace faster than a real sermon – reminding us we are not in church, but in a theater.
In due time, the congregation starts to come apart at the seams. Associate Pastor (Glenn Davis) challenges this heresy, and is released of his duties. Elder Jay counsels Pastor Paul, in an eldering, indirect monolog, advising him of the folly of turning out his very popular associate preacher.
Then Congregant (Jacqueline Williams) arises during worship, and reads a letter of her reflections, begun in a self-effacing and unassuming manner, then swelling to emotional poignance, even majesty, as she picks apart Pastor Paul for forsaking the congregation’s need for faith, accusing him of a lack of sincerity in waiting until the after the mortgage was paid off.
The wind-down of the drama finds Pastor Paul again challenged by his Associate Pastor. Glenn Davis’ performance of a combative theological and emotional challenge rivaled that of Williams. And finally, Pastor’s Wife Elizabeth (Shannon Cochran) takes Pastor Paul on her own terms, struggling with the compromises he has inflicted on his family. And asserting she does not share his belief.
These performances all on their own justify a trip to Steppenwolf Theatre, and the writing of this play. Directed obviously so well by K. Todd Freeman, The Christians runs through January 29, 2017, and is highly recommended.
Erika Sheffer’s The Fundamentals is a powerful tale of the struggles of a service industry worker. It is also a parable for our times. Director Yasen Peyankov has taken what we see all the time, and really shows it to us.
The Fundamentals (at Steppenwolf Theatre) tells the story of Millie (Alana Arenas), a housekeeper in The Bakerville, a New York boutique location of a premier luxury hotel chain. Classic dramatic tension arises as Millie, aspiring to a better job and compensation, tries to move up from cleaning rooms to front desk.
In the course of the story, Millie learns she can get ahead by feeding her manager profit enhancing ideas gleaned from a housekeeper’s perspective. Arenas’s Millie is completely convincing as the innocent feeling her way through a corporate environment, and learning as she goes.
Millie soon discovers her manager puts the highest value on dirt about long-time workers that will let her fire them and hire cheaper replacements. You will readily recognize the lifer in the thirty-year hotel veteran Abe (played to a 't' by Alan Wilder). He ends up in the crosshairs.
In the role of Eliza the manager, Audrey Francis is flawless as an avatar of the steely corporate operative. She captures your attention, yet makes your skin crawl.
Another tension arises in the play around a class divide between workers, and the more moneyed class of managers and customers. This gap is even expressed in the language: Arena’s Millie, speaking in a thoroughly natural Manhattan brogue, contrasts sharply with the crisp Connecticut language of manager Eliza. Tanera Marshall coached dialects.
The private life of the struggling housekeeper spills over into workplace conflicts with her beau, hotel janitor Lorenzo (a strong performance by Armando Riesco).
Like many contemporary service businesses, this hotel has developed a detailed strategy for maximizing the satisfaction of guests, carefully training employees in seven “fundamentals.”
In this scenario natural expressions of interest and concern are replaced with uniform gestures of graciousness, and an interest in a customers welfare that is artificial, even clinical. Millie questions aloud the conflict in offering generosity and graciousness to customers, but not to colleagues.
The Fundamental’s serious reflection of these societal concerns is a tribute to the developers of this work – more than a year in the making it was commissioned by Steppenwolf, funded by the Zell Foundation, parts were read at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and an earlier version was performed at Steppenwolf’s First Look series last year.
Steppenwolf’s prodigious marketing skills were also put to dramatic use fashioning media props in this work. The play is sprinkled with highly polished advertising interludes (Stephan Mazurek) that are shockingly authentic. This was the first time I have ever been shaken from suspending disbelief, to really believing.
The set by Collette Poward also deserves great praise. The millworked trim and commercial lighting of a hotel hall make a great backdrop for the multimedia interludes. The elevator from the subterranean locker room to guest services is completely convincing.
The Fundamentals at Steppenwolf Theatre comes highly recommended. It runs through December 23, 2016.
If you were to take a survey of teenagers and young adults to determine which social issue they’re most interested in seeing addressed onstage, mass shootings would be near the top of the list. Though the kind of incident in which an ideologically fanatical and/or severely mentally ill individual massacres a random group of people is not how the majority of murders occur, or the type of shooting Chicago public school students are most likely to encounter, it is something I’ve found that students have a strong desire to discuss. Of course, discussing something is quite different from discussing it intelligently, and the “conversation” around school shootings is filled with so much nonsense and has so little legislative effect that people have become jaded enough for Heathers: The Musical to exist (and be funny). But that’s where playwright Caitlin Parrish comes in. Working with director Erica Weiss, Parrish has adapted the ancient Greek story of Antigone into a new play which not only allows its characters to be complex and intelligent, but is an interesting story in its own right, and worthwhile for adults to see during a public performance.
The Antigone imagined by Sophocles was one who sacrificed her life by defying her uncle Creon to give her treacherous brother a proper burial. The one imagined by Jean Anouilh in 1944 switched her motivations so rapidly that Anouilh’s Creon excused himself by saying she simply wished to be martyred and did not care what principle she ostensibly died for. Parrish’s Antigone, named Sophie Martin (Olivia Cygan), has no desire to sacrifice herself at all. The favorite child of a widowed Republican senator running for re-election as a moderate, high school senior Sophie has just cast her vote in her first primary election when shots ring out at her school. Upon learning that her brother, Ben (Matt Farabee), was the killer and concluded his massacre in suicide, her first thought is that she hopes his body hasn’t been left alone, and her second thought is to hope the media does not release his name until the polls are closed. Sophie has made supporting her father’s career her purpose in life, and is deeply disappointed in Ben for what she perceives as a calculated attempt to kill their family socially, along with his more direct victims. In this version, he is buried quickly, in an unmarked grave outside of town, but Sophie is troubled at how easily her father, Ryan (Coburn Goss), and sister, Chloe (Becca Savoy), join everyone else in writing him off as evil.
Sophie’s discomfort increases when her father declares that he wants teachers to be armed, and implies he would have killed Ben himself had he known what he was planning. She’s also blindsided by how suspicious her classmates are of her—to have not known Ben was a psychopath means she must either have been stupid or been covering for him, and they know she’s not stupid. As her father’s plan to rebuild his public image as Ben’s most prominent surviving victim proves surprisingly successful, Sophie finds herself disagreeing with him on the wisdom of widespread access to firearms. He claims that she is simply trying to avoid acknowledging what Ben was so he won’t reflect poorly on her, but Sophie believes whatever was wrong with Ben isn’t as easily addressed or as relevant to any other mass shooting as cracking down on guns.
Parrish’s script sometimes strays close to letting characters speechify, but generally, she motivates their responses quite well. The nine-member ensemble all acquit themselves marvelously, with Cygan expertly managing the difficult task of keeping a somewhat objectionable and high-handed protagonist clever and active enough to maintain the audience’s interest. Higher on the sympathy scale is Savoy’s sardonic Chloe, who, as a lesbian from a Republican household, had relied more upon the school than her family for a social network, and is more upset by having that taken from her. Goss’ senator is no caricature, but he doesn’t display the same level of conflict over what to do with Sophie as most Creons. His claim that he specifically is needed in Washington and he therefore must be willing to sacrifice his family seems to have little basis, but the playwright allows him to sound reasonable despite disagreeing with him.
The school, too, is host to a wide array of richly developed characters. Stephanie Andrea Barron plays Sophie’s friend Janette, who is from a far less-comfortable background and already had mechanisms for coping with violence; her boyfriend, Jayden (Joel Boyd) never liked Sophie in the first place, perhaps saw her as a rival, and is the kind of person who displays his books so everybody can be impressed by what he’s reading (it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me). Greg (Ty Olwin) is a profoundly hurt friend of a victim who finds the Martins unspeakably vile, while Brianna (Aurora Adachi-Winter) is a survivor whose brief appearance in a video at the beginning of the play instantly establishes an unsettling tension. It was wise of Parrish to grant the chorus so much individuality—the community feels much more authentic when its differences can be acknowledged, and the play has a heart which is sometimes missing in modern remountings of Greek tragedies. Representing her and Weiss’s own generation are a teacher and a newscaster played by Kristina Valada-Viars, one of whom, being in her mid-thirties, declares herself too old to lead the cause of gun control, and the other of whom outright admits she has been faking her routine shock and grief for a while.
Courtney O’Neill’s set design contains a nod to what the Athenian theatre is supposed to have looked like in the time of Sophocles, but it also allows room for Joseph A. Burke’s projections. Ben appears in the form of a vapid video diary he kept which endlessly frustrates the other characters by providing very little help in figuring out his motivations, but his posthumous presence on social media becomes a major recurring plot point. Parrish used the premise of Antigone, but since the point of the play is to make teenagers feel empowered, one can see long in advance that it’s not a tragedy. Parrish and Weiss also aren’t shy about using the play to advocate for stricter gun regulation, or possibly elimination, but the context of Steppenwolf’s encouragement of discussion and feedback prevents this from feeling propagandistic, and they present a reasoned argument with respect for the other side. Based on the differences between how Goss and Valada-Viars’s characters are represented, they seem harder on themselves, which, when ninety percent of the public supports stricter background checks and is unable to move Congress, gun-regulation advocates perhaps ought to be.
One of the most encouraging things about this production is that there exist people who understand the myriad viewpoints that exist surrounding mass shootings and respect young peoples’ experiences and concerns. Acknowledgement isn’t progress in itself, but it is a precondition to progress that is often lacking, and Weiss’s cast display genuine empathy. This show isn’t meant to condescendingly educate teenagers about themselves; it’s a mirror held up to the people most effected by an issue, and for them and everyone else concerned about mass shootings, The Burials is highly recommended.
Public performances of The Burials are on October 14 at 7:30 pm, October 15 at 3:00 pm, and October 22 and 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm in Steppenwolf’s upstairs theatre at 1650 N Halsted Ave, Chicago. For ticket information, see Steppenwolf.org.
David Rabe’s Visiting Edna is everything you expect from Steppenwolf Theatre: a work of depth and significance, actors rendering studied characters, and production values of the highest order.
Rabe’s writing also displays another Steppenwolf hallmark: plays that mine the power and drama in the ordinary language of daily life. Edna (Debra Monk is sensational) is an Iowa widow soldiering through a litany of ills – heart failure, colostomy, colitis, diabetes and cancer – all conspiring to come in for the kill. Her middle-aged son Andrew (Ian Barford gives what will surely be a definitive performance) visits to check in on her, and decides to see if better medical advice might improve her condition.
This may sound grim, or even boring. It is anything but. Though Edna babbles endlessly - as mothers may – her almost hypnotic patter is laced with incisive reflection and homespun wisdom, engaging her son (and the audience). She also begins settling accounts, handing off possessions and revealing scars from her own upbringing from which she sought to shield Andrew and his sister. Edna vividly relates the impact on her own childhood of the fraught circumstances of her older sisters’ teenage miscarriage and battle with tuberculosis.
Edna’s end of life scenario affords moments of reflection, recall, and bonding with Andrew. Edna, born in 1926 to a world devoid of social media - or psychotherapy, for that matter - regrets in hindsight the physical discipline she inflicted on Andrew, and worries over her own careless decision to bring Andrew, age four at the time, to watch a hotel fire at which guests jumped to their deaths. "It's just so different now, that's all," Edna says.
The play also hums with a magical realism, as the dying Edna is pulled between two polarities familiar to anyone who has tread the path of serious illness: a distracting television, and the illness itself. In Visiting Edna, Actor One (Sally Murphy in a beautifully crafted and inspired performance) plays a channel-flipping Television, breaking the wall to address the audience in her opening monologue. She even relates the playwright's reflections on whether to wear rabbit ears or a dish antenna.)
Tim Hopper as Actor Two, plays Edna’s cancer through most of the play. (Note to Hopper fans: this is one his best roles.) Hopper’s knowing, insidious cancer recounts Edna's ailments, and telsl the audience, "Yet, she is desperate to live." Cancer offers gloomy reminders to Edna ("It's a dark hole you're in.") and competes mightily with Murphy’s sprightly Television for attention. In fact, neither wins it. As Actor Three (in a stunning walk-on role), Michael Rabe is at once frightening and believable as an angel of death.
The stage itself is quite awesome: a sky tunnel right out of Magritte hovers above a split level living room. Stormy weather was so convincingly portrayed I was surprised the streets were dry when I left the theater. Kudos to David Zinn for set design, Marcus Doshi on lighting, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen for music and sound design. Artistic director Anna Shapiro, famed for August: Osage County, oversaw the show and guides this season at Steppenwolf.
This wonderful production has just one drawback: the ending, which seems to drag, as Andrew addresses the audience in a lengthy, tearful soliloquy about Edna’s final moments.
That aside, Visiting Edna is as good as it gets on stage. It runs through November 6, 2016 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.
It’s not often a theatre company tackles two Pulitzer Prize winning plays in one season, but Steppenwolf is doing just that. While you may grow a long white beard waiting to see the 2016 winner, "Hamilton," Steppenwolf has 2014 and 2015 covered with "The Flick" and "Between Riverside and Crazy." Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis' work was last seen at the Steppenwolf in 2012 with "The Motherf@cker with the Hat." He won the 2015 Pulitzer for "Between Riverside and Crazy."
"Between Riverside and Crazy" is largely similar to "The Motherf@cker with the Hat," in that it deals with issues of addiction and inequality. "Riverside" tells the story of Walter (Eamonn Walker) who's a retired cop with one of the last rent controlled apartments in a nice part of Manhattan. The catch is that he's hopelessly waiting for a settlement from the city because he was shot by another officer. Walter, or Pops, as he's called has a habit of taking in degenerates and trying to nurse them back to health. He forgives people of their sins and keeps company with thieves and whores, sound familiar?
Guirgis' play couldn't come about at a more topical time. Though, when thinking of an ethics tale about a police shooting, most would have a different notion of how the author would address issues of race. Guirgis is unflinchingly realistic, with the point being that nobody is perfect. The space between right and wrong seems to be too narrow for this play, as are most instances in life. What he does well is set characters up to appear one way, only to cynically devolve into what we're conditioned to assume.
Eamonn Walker impeccably leads this top-notch cast. He's able to embody the grizzled, but lovable character in such a natural way you'd think you've known him forever. Audrey Francis also stands out in her performance as Walter's former beat partner. She plays an unlikeable character with such sincerity that you almost forget she's not really on Walter's side. Lily Mojekwu is one of the show's best hidden gems. Her character, Church Lady, doesn’t enter until well into the second act, but her narrative propels the story to its conclusion. She's another character you want to trust, but if you've been in the real world long enough, you know better.
Yasen Peyankov's production of "Between Riverside and Crazy" is a slow building, but highly rewarding theatre experience on the same level as "Clybourn Park." Good for the Steppenwolf for forcing unpleasant issues in the face of middle class audiences. While some may leave the theater feeling as if their world views are affirmed, others will leave questioning their own morals.
Through August 21st at Steppenwolf Theatre. 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650
Watching one scene acted four or five ways is intrinsically interesting. It’s regularly played to comic effect at Second City. But what about an entire play strung together from a series of such scenes?
This structure, used in Constellations at Steppenwolf Theatre, may put your interest to the test. But it will not lose it.
This celebrated work is by British playwright Nick Payne, whose daring script has a simple storyline – boy and girl meet, court, marry. They face the joys and trials of coupledom: sharing, loving, careers, infidelity, illness.
Many scenes (all of them quite short) are played verbatim, or nearly so, three or more times in rapid succession. The characters shift emphasis, even reverse roles - the victimized party turns victimizer; the adulterer turns adulteress. Other scenes are almost largely rewritten for the multiple versions – delving into a conditional world – one in which this same relationship has played out differently than other scenes have suggested to us.
As Constellations progresses, the effect of so many short scenes is like standing at Oak Street Beach as the waves lap up, each similar, but different. In totality, the effect is mesmerizing.
And those individual scenes are very strong. The excellent performances by Jon Michael Hill as Roland, a beekeeper, and Jessie Fisher as Marianne, a theoretical physicist, give this work its due. (Both play with plausible British accents.)
After the 80 minute performance (no intermission) one can think back and say, “I saw a play tonight, and here’s what happened.” At Wednesday’s performance the audience was clearly engaged, getting the jokes, and tracking the action– as those scenes washed over them again and again.
The unlikely pairing of a beekeeper and a theoretical physicist also assures there will be great contrast in these characters. The beekeeper’s career path, explored through exposition, is quite credible in our renaissance of makers and foodies. He clearly admires the well defined roles of bees (i.e., worker,drone, queen).
But it is the role of Marianne, the theoretical physicist, that may be the key to this drama. Explaining her work to Roland, she posits a world in which all the choices we have made, or didn’t make, and lives we could have led, or did lead – coexist. Perhaps like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, these characters are "unstuck in time." This helps explain recurring scenes that diverge from the most likely story line. One example: a wistful exchange when the two, apparently living separate lives, meet up “years later” by sheer chance – a scene (repeated multiple times in various ways) that runs counter to suggestions they lived happily ever after.
The handsome set (Joe Schermoly) carries Constellations' theme well, setting the duo on a seamless, cornerless, groundless landscape of blue, evoking an unbounded cosmos. Above hang webs of LED rope (light design by Heather Gilbert) that crackle and flare like lightning (perhaps a visual cue of String Theory?).
Another provocative aspect of Constellations is conjured by a line delivered repeatedly by Marianne early on, and again near the end: “Mother wasn’t afraid to die; she was afraid of being kept alive.” This play is also about that solemn thought.
Constellations, directed by Jonathan Berry, runs through July 3. In addition to its well regarded author and highly regarded performances in London and New York, the show lets fans see TV star Jon Michael Hill (Detective Marcus Bell in CBS-TV’s Elementary) and Jessie Fisher, who starred on Broadway in Once.
How much do we reveal about ourselves to others? In a masterful new Steppenwolf production, title character Mary Page Marlowe gives the short answer: Only what we know.
It may sound like an unpromising premise, but in recounting the life of ostensibly ordinary Mary Page Marlowe, a CPA from Dayton, playwright Tracy Lett’s shows his Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning chops, with a script that achingly reveals the human condition.
Through a dozen vignettes, one of six actresses plays Mary Page Marlowe at various stages. The first is in a restaurant, where Mary Page tells her kids that mom and dad are splitting. She gazes across the audience, asking loudly with her eyes, “How did I get here?”
Mary Page appears in every scene that follows, and the play challenges the audience to flash back and flash forward with her in time. We see her years before in a tryst with her boss; and years later in session with her therapist. Action jumps ahead to her deathbed, then back to her parents’ home in the 1940s, when she was just a baby.
From this we weave together the narrative of Mary Page Marlowe’s life: an alcoholic daughter of an alcoholic mother, her son who battles addiction, her family suffering the life of quiet desperation typical of many under the repressive social expectations of the 1950s and 1960s.
Mary Page Marlowe displaces her unhappiness in drinking and love affairs. A DUI near-fatal accident sends her to jail, and ends her second marriage. Hitting the wall, she finally comes to terms with her drinking and her life. Marrying successfully, she is eventually widowed. Alone on her death bed, Mary Beth Marlow confesses to her medical attendant she is ready to go, and has come to terms with her life.
All that is easier said than done on stage, and the audience may struggle at times to follow the characters’ progress in this play which yearns to be a movie. It is clear why director Anna Shapiro, who is also artistic director, postponed a sabbatical just to work on this production, which rivals film in its creative presentation.
Co-starring in all this is the set (Todd Rosenthall) and Lighting (Marcus Doshi), which moves from scene to scene by sliding in rooms, and dropping in translucent partitions that shape-shift through projection and backlight. The effect is truly cinematic, with scenes dissolving, like artfully edited film. Letts may be showing the influence of Hollywood, having watched his masterworks August: Osage County (Meryl Streep and Sam Shepard) and Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) transfer from stage to screen.
The structure relegates the 21-member cast to largely extended cameo roles, but these carefully chosen performers really deliver. Along with the title actresses, two standouts were Stephen Cefalu, Jr. (Ed Marlowe), the very picture of a post-World War II young father; and Kirsten Fitzgerald (Shrink), who knows how to project her lines, and commands the stage.
Six actors portray Mary Page Marlowe: Blair Brown (Mary at ages 59, 63 and 69); Carrie Coon (Mary at ages 27 and 36); Laura T. Fisher (Mary at age 50); Caroline Heffernan (Mary at age 12); Annie Munch (Mary at age 19); Rebecca Spence (Mary at ages 40 and 44), along with three live infants who intended to rotate in the role. (It was unclear in a recent matinee if a real baby made the curtain time. Other ensemble members Ian Barford (Ray) and Alan Wilder (Andy), Amanda Drinkall (Roberta Marlowe), Jack Edwards (Louis Gilbert), Tess Frazer (Lorna), Keith Gallagher (Ben), Sandra Marquez (Nurse), Ariana Venturi (Connie), Madeline Weinstein (Wendy Gilbert) and Gary Wilmes (Dan).
Mary Page Marlowe can be seen as a coming of age story, starring a Baby Boomer everywoman. Letts has also broken new ground, here, not just in the cinematic style of this play, but in examining to what extent we can reveal in our new relationships a life’s worth of baggage collected along the way.
In what may be the most revealing scene, the widowed Mary Beth Marlowe (Blair Brown) strikes up a conversation with a dry cleaning clerk Keith Gallagher as Ben) about restoring an old quilt – a conversation riddled with yearning, about nothing, and everything. Just like the play.
Of the many Andrew Lloyd Webber hits, Jesus Christ Superstar has always been a personal favorite of mine. It rocks,…
It’s been quite a year in Chicagoland for Karen Zacarías, and it’s not over yet. One year after her The…
I have to admit Aladdin is one of my all-time favorite Disney films so I was very optimistic upon entering…
It was an interesting pairing of solo singer/guitar players last night at City Winery. I often check out artists I…
How nice that even songs Stephen Sondheim cut from his own musicals can still find a home. “Marry Me a…
Scapegoat; Or (Why the Devil Always Loved Us) a satirical political drama now playing at the Den Theatre, takes the…
It’s so easy to make comparisons with artists these days. He/she sounds like so and so, etc. My expectation before…
Following the lives of Charlotte and Jonny, The Mystery of Love and Sex cleverly explores a variety of subjects including…
If you’ve followed Netflix’s big 2016 hit Stranger Things, this play will make all kinds of sense. You’ll get the…
Haven Theatre Company announces We’re Gonna Die, the final production in its fourth season, written by Young Jean Lee and…
After hosting over 10,000 wedding crashers since opening in September 2016, one of Chicago’s longest-running smash-hit shows, Tony n’ Tina’s…
We have 146 guests and no members online