Objects in the Mirror

Lily Mojekwu (Luopu Workolo), Daniel Kyri (Shedrick Yarkpai) and Breon Arzell (Zaza Workolo)

In art, truth — the search for it, the lack of it and the emotional pain these activities impose — is a universal concern. What is human life if not the constant pursuit of trustworthy community and informational reliability? The struggle provides endless creative inspiration. Yet somehow, in 2017 America, “Objects in the Mirror,” the work of Chicago native Charles Smith, arrives on the Goodman Theatre stage that much more urgently.

As I write these words, our country is struggling through a nascent Constitutional crisis that has its roots in the mysterious relationship between the Trump administration and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It could be months, even years before facts are laid bare and outcomes are decided. And while this catastrophe plays itself out on the world stage, works of art such as “Objects” remind us of an inescapable, universal truth. The reckoning always arrives. Always.

Playwright Charles Smith met a young, hungry actor in Adelaide, Australia in 2009. As press materials detail, Smith’s friendship with Shedrick Yarkpai grew, ultimately resulting in this story of the actor’s “valiant 10+ year (1995-2007) journey from war-torn Liberia through a number of refugee camps in Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire, before his final relocation” to the Land Down Under.

As played by Chicago actor Daniel Kyri, Shedrick is a conflicted survivor: loyal, earnest and brokenhearted over separation from his mother Luopu (the phenomenal Lily Mojekwu). He is determined to build a life of which he can be proud, despite years of human horror and Dark Side temptation.

Though it’s impossible to be certain of playwright Smith’s process, it’s hard to overlook the parallels between Liberia’s brutal warlord Charles Taylor and the current President of the United States. The foot soldiers and water carriers of both regimes are desperate and disillusioned. In Shedrick’s retelling of his personal and national history, any community and security is sometimes preferable to frightened, isolated starvation. The Trump administration has steered clear of indiscriminate murder to be sure, but it’s not hard to feel the country slipping down an increasingly deep and morally corrupt surface.

It’s a testament to Yarkpai’s story, Smith’s writing and Goodman Theatre resident director Chuck Smith (no relation) that “Objects” can feel so universal and personal, even as the action takes place “over there.” It also helps that every cast member is exquisitely talented and well chosen. In addition to powerful work from Kyri and the remarkable Mojekwu, Allen Gilmore as Uncle John Workolo is a revelation.

Workolo is the relentless center holding his tortured family together. His personal motto, repeated more than once during the play’s two-hour, 15-minute runtime, is that his kin and he survive or fall as one. He channels his considerable energies and focus into the noble pursuit of his family’s survival. He also seeks a life of which he can be proud — one in which a relationship with the truth is dictated by circumstances of the moment. Uncle John thinks on his feet, but his decisions are not always kind. Gilmore wrings every bit of emotionally-relatable nuance out of the material.

Ryan Kitley also turns in a good performance as Rob Mosher, an Australian lawyer who takes a personal interest in young Shedrick. The beauty of Kitley’s turn, the delicate artistry in fact of the entire cast, lies in uncertainty.

It’s possible to believe every player in Shedrick’s story means well without any confidence that anyone is telling the truth. Shedrick himself, while certainly sympathetic, demonstrates unreliability as a narrator. Does he make up drug experiences as a test of Mosher’s loyalty, as he tells Uncle John, or is his father figure the one being tried?

“Objects in the Mirror” is a gripping piece about the physical, metaphorical and spiritual challenges involved in living authentically. It deserves a wide audience.

“Objects in the Mirror” runs through June 4 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.

Gloria

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Ryan Spahn (Dean), Jennifer Kim (Kendra), and Catherine Combs (Ani) in ‘Gloria’

During the whip-smart first half of “Gloria,” Lorin (Michael Crane), a 37-year-old Head Fact Checker at a wheezing New York-based magazine, laments his state of living. Bored with a time consuming, dead-end job, surrounded by malcontents and suspicious that this may be all there is, Lorin opines that death must be not only sweet relief, but one’s first (and presumably only) opportunity to be noticed.

Such bitterness and cynicism permeates “Gloria,” a misanthropic look at two 21st Century workplace threats: technological displacement and disgruntled colleagues. A 2016 Pulitzer Prize-finalist from MacArthur Foundation Fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the work strikes an engrossing balance between shock and familiarity that will necessarily follow audience members out of the Albert Theatre.

Directed by Evan Cabnet, who also helmed Goodman’s funny, disquieting and resonant 2013 production, “Teddy Ferrara,” this iteration of “Gloria” benefits from the original cast of the off-Broadway mounting. The syncopated performers know the material — and each other — which permits the script’s caustic humor to spew forth organically. Because absurdity and the fragility of life can be damned funny.

Press materials accessibly describe the plot as a meditation on Millennial office politics. “A group of ambitious twenty-somethings at one of New York’s most esteemed cultural magazines are pursuing it all — style status and success. When a seemingly normal day at the office turns out to be anything but, these aspiring journalists recognize an opportunity to seize a career-defining moment.”

I suppose that sketch is handy, but Jacob-Jenkins’ material is so much richer than convenient tropes. Suppose, as the opportunistic Kendra (a glorious Jennifer Kim) offers, that the slow destruction of print media and journalism can be blamed on factors beyond the monolithic growth and presence of the Internet. What if New York City’s famous gentrification and unaffordability is rooted in more than real estate trends and urban scarcity?

“Gloria” asks us to consider the possibility that the Yuppies and Baby Boomers who indulged, slacked and ennuied their way through the Me Decade and the Dot Com Boom, ruined socioeconomic and media career opportunity for everyone born after 1985. More than just provocative story material, the controversial idea is supported by a growing body of academic research pointing fingers in the direction of the post-World War II generation. A quick Google search yields article titles such as “Baby Boomers are Ruining the Entire World” and “Baby Boomers Ruined America: Why Blaming Millennials is Misguided.”

If the children of the Greatest Generation gobbled upward mobility and meritocracy like so many swarming corporate locusts, what’s left for today’s workers? Squeezed by low wages and high costs of living, teased by an American Dream displaced by continuous insecurity, mental health and self-esteem are increasingly difficult to balance. And the script seems to suggest that the excessively hungry, inhuman ambition displayed by some of the leads is a natural result. The new “Greed is good” as it were in a culture where there no longer seem to be any road maps.

“Gloria” is explosive, uncomfortable, hilarious and brilliant. I’ve already singled out Jennifer Kim, who does some great work as the unabashedly arch and calculating Kendra. Kendra’s frenemy Dean, inhabited by Ryan Spahn, is a portrait of sycophantic ingratiation that cannot withstand the intrusion of human desperation. And Janine Serralles brings surprising emotional heft to the role of Nan, a Generation X editor caught between culpability and a need for reinvention.

I have one minor quibble with “Gloria.” The use of operatic intros, outros and imagery feels a bit heavy handed. The material is tragic enough without the ham-fisted arias that seem otherwise irrelevant to the plot and character arcs. But this is easily forgiven by the truly original nature of the rest of the work.

As my companion and I finished a pre-show dinner, our server commented that she’d heard “mixed reviews” of the production. I’ve no doubt. This is a tough piece, with jarring, often discordant emotional demands. It may prove too much for the casual theater goer looking for mindless entertainment. Those who enjoy being provoked however, should clear space on their winter theater calendars.

“Gloria” runs through February 19 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.

Her America

her-america
Kate Buddeke

In less than five minutes, it’s clear who Lori is talking to and what is in the trunk. The morning after taking in Greenhouse Theater Center’s world premiere of “Her America,” I’m still wondering if that makes a difference. I think it does.

If that seems an ambivalent reaction to playwright Brett Neveu’s latest work, it’s one in keeping with the source material. Even the press release describing the production is full of questions. Lori, played by Jeff Award-winning actress Kate Buddeke (Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Airline Highway”), confronts “where it all went astray. Was it the day she married Dan? The morning a stranger from her past reappeared? Or the night she put a secret in the trunk, changing her family forever?”

The aforementioned “secret” is the conferee of what amounts to a 75-minute monologue from a conflicted Lori. The lifelong resident of on undefined patch of earth in Middle America, the character earned her high school education, married young and is without a career. She details a lonely childhood full of religious judgment, shyness and mystery. Lori doesn’t know who fathered her, and that seems to be important to what we learn is a needy string of dependent relationships with men.

Despite her predilection, onstage and off, to live as a quiet island, Lori displays a curious lack of agency as she expands upon her spoken autobiography. Nothing is ever her fault, as typified by her repeated angry shouts toward the trunk. Imploring an unseen figure to “Say you’re sorry!” for the sad, injured state of affairs that has Lori creeping through her basement, digging through artifacts and hiding from the hounds upstairs.

It becomes very clear that Lori is a habitual hider, literally as well as metaphorically. There’s every reason to suspect that Lori’s often bipolar reflections on the course of her existence is the most she’s ever said at one time. And while she ultimately shirks responsibility for her own unhappiness, it’s equally apparent that it’s she who’s manipulated four lives. She exhibits no obvious guilt, just a lot of ignorance and self-pity.

Is this interesting? Kind of. Neveu’s script has some insightful observations about the smallness that overtakes the intellectually uncurious. Lori’s world isn’t much bigger than her couch, yard, husband and childhood friend. She describes drinking, bonfires and TV as her circle’s pursuits and it’s never occurred to the character to want or search for more.

Kate Buddeke is a talented actress who digs her teeth into the extended soliloquy of rural rage and regret. She’s well directed by Linda Gillum, and Scenic Designer Grant Sabin knows how to conjure a cellar that veritably screams “poor white trash” at the audience. Moreover, the one dramatic, forceful life choice that Lori actually makes (even an affair is made to sound like natural, casual happenstance), conjures urgent sociopolitical considerations of women’s health, financial independence and the tension between public and private morality.

“Her America” flirts with consequence but at the end of Buddeke’s energetic performance, theatergoers may find the work forgettable. Like the hole at the bottom of Lori’s steamer trunk. Because the only voice we hear, the only person we see, takes away so little from the experience herself. Lori goes nowhere, a metaphor driven home by her protracted basement cowering. And even if the stagnation is sometimes inventive, sluggishness itself rarely makes a lasting impression.

Only the night after the production’s press opening, the Greenhouse Theater’s Downstairs Mainstage housed no more than a dozen ticketholders. The material’s apathy is already affecting attendance. It’s too bad. Buddeke’s talent deserves better.

“Her America” runs through February 12 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Greenhouse Theater website.

The Phantom of the Opera

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Cameron Mackintosh’s stunning new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway smash “The Phantom of the Opera” is almost perversely difficult to describe with words alone. Performed by a cast and orchestra of 52, this reinvention of a timeless classic is large in more ways than one.

Directed by Laurence Connor, a studied veteran of many of Webber’s most famous shows, this “Phantom” offers the expected beautiful music, glowing performances and well-loved story. But it’s also a true feat of engineering. Toward the end of the first act, I had to stop myself from folding the program into a makeshift award to hand over to Set Designer Paul Brown. I’ve never been very skilled at origami anyway.

Although the Cadillac Palace is one of Chicago’s largest (2,300 seats), most historic (opened in 1926 as a vaudevillian showcase) and ostentatious theater venues, I never would have believed it large enough to contain the world that Brown unfolds over the course of an evening. I stopped counting after about a dozen distinctive, elaborate sets opened, closed, dropped and unrolled across the stage. I have no idea the ultimate cost or man hours invested in this production, but from all appearances, no expense or detail was spared.

With the look and atmosphere of a French palace even when the theater is dark (rose-marbled walls, crystal chandeliers, gold plaster ornamentation, large mirrors) the Cadillac is a natural fit for Webber’s iconic 1980s musical. Set in the Paris Opera House of the 19th Century, this sumptuous tale of love and bitter loss among the arts has found a perfect Chicago home for its limited run.

Nearly every theater lover knows the story: deformed since infancy, a bitter and intimidating man known as “the Phantom” (Derrick Davis) dwells in the Paris Opera House sewers. A gifted but frustrated inventor, composer and musician, the Phantom befriends a languishing chorus girl named Christine Daae (Katie Travis). The ethereal Svengali falls in love with Christine while training her to be an opera diva. He then sets about terrorizing the rest of the cast, demanding lead roles for his beloved protégé.

Though the Phantom bears a ghastly disfigurement and demonstrates his devotion in ways rather frightening to everyone involved, including Christine, it’s difficult not be touched by his misguided fervor. And of course, by the final curtain drop, the anti-hero’s innate goodness is evident.

The journey to redemption is a breathtaking one. Webber’s original score is just as haunting and mesmerizing as ever, complementing Brown’s audacious new set design. And as fully expected, the performances are developed and compelling.

Derrick Davis is a physically and vocally powerful Phantom. In speech he recalls a young James Earl Jones (especially fitting considering his time on Broadway as Mufasa/Scar in “The Lion King). And might I add that if you Google the performer’s headshot, you’ll find a visage decidedly unbeastly? Derrick Davis is one sexy ghost.

The diminutive Travis is a perfect complement to the sturdy Davis, but her Christine is no victim. Forced to choose between the life of her lover Raoul (Jordan Craig) and duty to her operatic master, Christine selects a third option of her own design that ultimately penetrates the Phantom’s embittered heart. It is she, rather than any man, who saves the day. And Travis makes the audience believe every gorgeous note.

I was first dazzled by “Phantom of the Opera” as a 15-year-old theater novice. New Year’s Eve 1994: I wore a green velvet dress as I entered Chicago’s Auditorium Theater feeling very mature indeed. With the first swing of the iconic chandelier, my eyes wider than saucers, the Andrew Lloyd Webber experience was seared into memory. As I left home last Friday evening, I wondered how the impression would hold up for a now 38-year-old, wizened critic. Would the magic have the same effect?

A thousand times yes. Just as it was when I was a teen, I’ll spend months humming the soundtrack, and perhaps longer trying to figure out how Paul Brown accomplished those intricate, otherworldly set pieces. Truly an amazing feat.

“The Phantom of the Opera” runs through January 8, 2017 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.

The Christians

pastor-paul
Tom Irwin stars as Pastor Paul

K. Todd Freeman, Steppenwolf ensemble member and Director of “The Christians,” is one of the most important talents to be found among Chicago’s robust theater community. As an actor (Tony-nominated for 2014’s “Airline Highway”) and maestro (2012’s electric “Good People”), Freeman influences projects that refract sociopolitical and spiritual dynamics into fascinating onstage shapes.

And he’s done it again with the Windy City premiere of playwright Lucas Hnath’s 2015 work, “The Christians.” Press materials describe the production as one of “great complexity and passion [which looks] at the relationship between belief and behavior… [an] evenhanded, unbiased take on faith in modern America.”

The work can be appreciated agnostically, though it is clear from auditing the Book of Job-esque cautionary tale of a righteously compromised man, that Hnath has read his Bible. And under the direction of Freeman, a Deacon’s son, a tortured, and at times wistful portrait of theology and fellowship is brought to life.

Pastor Paul (a layered and deft Tom Irwin) is the man with everything — the beautiful, devoted wife (Shannon Cochran), a growing congregation and a newly debt-free church. The preacher is the spiritual leader of thousands, a man seemingly in command of traditional morality infused with 21st Century humanistic flexibility.

One fine Sunday, Pastor Paul confidently takes his place at the lectern to articulate a “new belief in the nature of salvation.” What could go wrong with sharing a more inclusive interpretation of forgiveness?

In short and without spoilers, just about everything. Yet because of Hnath’s subtle, graded writing, Freeman’s careful direction and a number of top-drawer acting performances, there are no finite answers. If the audience is left with more questions than certainty by curtain call, that’s precisely the point.

After all, saints and sinners are rarely as straightforward as their neat categorizations imply. “Schism” is a word carefully chosen in the dialogue as well as the work’s plot summary. As Pastor’s Paul’s congregation and spiritual authority are tested, relationships viewed as unwavering from an outsider’s perspective begin to splinter.

Veteran actress Jacqueline Williams delivers a shattering profile of structural and personal crisis. As Jenny, a believer who feels betrayed and deceived by her pastor’s evolution, the artist conveys a desperate need for simple, clear direction. As an audience member, it’s impossible to remain unmoved by Williams’ vulnerability.

Jenny has struggled, suffered and given so much that her weary pleas for accessible duality — heaven/hell, Jesus/The Devil — feel less like judgmental denunciation and more like bereft confusion. Through Williams’ tears and soft speech, we hear Jenny’s accusation loud and clear, “I have burdens enough to carry. You were supposed to take this one, Pastor Paul.”

Tom Irwin, a 1990s pop cultural legend for Generation Xers, is the understated glue that holds the powerful cast together. Many fans will find parallels between Pastor Paul and Graham Chase, the complicated television dad Irwin played on ABC’s “My So-Called Life.” Both characters appear to have it all, but are cut off from enjoying their earthly bounties by self-destructive streaks that may or may not indicate a misguided allegiance to personal over public morality.

Why did Pastor Paul unburden his soul that fateful Sunday morning? Was he really bidden by the voice of God, or was he victimized by his own hubris, the freedom of speech and direction permitted by a mortgage bill paid in full? Audience members will never be more certain than the conflicted Jenny, or Pastor Paul’s wife, who wonders about the implications for her own spirituality pursuant to her spouse’s epiphany.

What audiences of “The Christians” can say with certainty is that the conversion of Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre into a church with a live pre-show choir packs a powerful, authentic punch that sets the production’s tone. Veteran Scenic Designer Walt Spangler evokes the feel of a cavernous megachurch juxtaposed with the intimacy of direct spiritual conversation.

And chorus members Williams, Faith Howard, Yando Lopez, Leonard Maddox Jr., Jazelle Morriss, Mary-Margaret Roberts and Charlie Strater take viewers to the metaphorical mountaintop (regardless of belief) with soaring, passionate vocals that demand clapped hands and movement.

With an 80-minute running time and no intermission, “The Christians” is quickly paced, deeply felt and worthy of a spot on your 2016/2017 winter theater calendar.

“The Christians” runs through January 29, 2017 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.

 

 

 

The Fundamentals

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Armando Riesco (Lorenzo) and ensemble members Alan Wilder (Abe) and Alana Arenas (Millie)

As we exited Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre after Tuesday night’s press opening of “The Fundamentals,” my partner Bob remarked that he was reminded of the 1998 film “Wild Things.” Naturally I demanded further clarification because on the surface, the Steppenwolf-commissioned world premiere of playwright Erika Sheffer’s latest work would seem to have little connection with the soft core, Denise Richards skin flick. Bob explained that the two stories share a common problem — “too many twists.”

As I thought about the unlikely comparison, another similarity rose to the surface. “Wild Things” boasted a high wattage cornucopia of talent: Bill Murray, Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, Neve Campbell and the aforementioned Richards. “The Fundamentals” is crafted by an A-list playwright and acted by true stars of the Chicago stage including Steppenwolf ensemble members Alana Arenas (Millie), Caroline Neff (Stellan) and Alan Wilder (Abe). And yet for all the promise offered by the metaphorical opening credits, both works fall kind of flat, victims of overextended cleverness — “too many twists.”

The first act of the two hour and 15 minute production (with one intermission) is full of promise. Press materials describe the plot as the story of Millie, “a smart, resourceful young mother who works as a housekeeper in one of New York’s premier luxury hotels. When an opportunity to move into management gives her the chance to leave behind her blue collar life, Millie must decide how much, and who, she’s willing to sacrifice.”

An often sharp look at the dehumanizing, dream crushing effects of swimming with corporate sharks, “The Fundamentals” is a character study of compromise. Millie, as inhabited by the flawless Arenas, is given a relatable introduction. We all know someone like her, or perhaps recognize the character in ourselves: a devoted wife and mother keenly aware of the tradeoffs she’s made, chafing from an acute case of frustrated ambition. She is everyone’s reliable friend and co-worker, seething with latent anger that must find an outlet.

As the narrative progresses into the second act, Millie wades into moral murk that should open new dimensions and create suspense. However Sheffer overstuffs the script and the result is a different kind of murk that alienates the audience from the characters. Everyone is so busy scheming and double-crossing each other, it becomes impossible to root for anyone.

Case in point (with minimal spoilers): the trusting and friendly relationship between Millie and her longtime supervisor Abe is incomprehensibly degraded beyond recognition. Abe is far from a roadblock to Millie’s success and has in fact been a champion. The decision to abruptly transition him into tormentor smacks of deus ex machina overkill.

Rather than serve the story, the focus on corporate America is lost to a confusing explosion of infighting. It’s kind of impossible to pity characters or bemoan their fates with a creeping suspicion they all belong in the same jail cell. There are no winners here, but about 90 minutes into convoluted and repeated backstabs, it’s difficult to care.

All that said, Erika Sheffer’s gift for sharp dialogue remains evident, particularly during the first act. The author of another celebrated Steppenwolf production, 2012’s “Russian Transport,” Sheffer writes complicated exchanges that ring with organic truth. Getting to know Millie through conversations with her superiors and troubled, but loving husband Lorenzo (Armando Riesco) is an enjoyable build. Then Sheffer throws everyone off the narrative rails.

What a shame. With a cast such as this, it seems superfluous to observe that for all of its flaws, “The Fundamentals” is brilliantly acted. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Alana Arenas perform in a multitude of diverse productions and the actress never steps wrong. When a production fails to work, it’s not for her lack of effort. Riesco and Audrey Francis, as corporate robot Eliza, are standouts as well.

Scenic Designer Collette Pollard turns in some good work here. The smallish Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre stage feels like a cavernous hotel basement, believably conjuring the grimy Big Apple waiting for the characters as they commute to and from the office.

However in the end, we’re back at “Wild Things.” Like “The Fundamentals,” so many promising individual elements add up to a high-profile, memorable misstep.

“The Fundamentals” runs through December 23 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.

Methtacular

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Steven Strafford

Steven Strafford, the creator of one-man show “Methacular,” has left an indelible 2016 imprint on the Chicago theater market — and this critic. I had the pleasure of seeing him inhabit the role of dastardly, but ultimately redeemable editor Chick Clark in the Goodman Theatre’s smash musical production “Wonderful Town” earlier this fall. In that guise, Strafford was all lovely song and dance in a welcome early 20th Century meditation on foiled patriarchy.

Where “Wonderful Town” contained cotton candy set pieces and a mostly wholesome view of New York City in the 1950s, Stafford’s autobiographical work in “Methtacular,” is, shall we say, a departure? Very unfortunately, the show just concluded a limited two-night engagement as part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s LookOut Series. However, this past weekend was not the first Chicago mounting of the work and perhaps if theatergoers ask Strafford very nicely, it won’t be the last.

Press materials describe “Methtacular” as follows: “Through comedy, songs, and plenty of honest storytelling, Strafford brings audiences on a journey through the chemical highs, devastating lows, and ultimate redemption from his drug addled, sex crazed life.”

Seemingly against rational logic, “Methtacular” is exactly the triumph over tragedy night of good fun a battered American electorate needs. It’s true. I feel personally fortunate to have seen the show last Friday night. A mere three days after the once improbable triumph of Donald J. Trump over Hillary Clinton to become our nation’s President-elect, I felt I might never laugh again.

Like so many other shell-shocked and concerned citizens, I spent the previous 72 hours in withdrawal, afraid for the future of our democracy and so many of its demographics: the LGBTQ community, Muslims, immigrants in general, women. Pretty much everyone.

“Methacular” is a jolt of honesty, self-deprecation and entertainment that offers hope, even where the emotion ought to be in short supply. As Strafford wastes no time telling a rapt cabaret audience, he was a capital “M” mess before he grew into the celebrated and acclaimed performer Chicago knows today. Once upon a time he was a virginal Jersey boy, a budding performer new to our Midwestern shores. A young man who found himself lost in a drug clouded world of bathhouses, physical danger, deception and crime.

By all accounts during the 75-minute show, we ought to be speaking of Strafford in the past tense. One such testimonial is offered by Steven’s mother through a series of poignant, heartbreaking video clips. There is much to take seriously about the helpless experience of watching a loved one kill themselves in slow motion.

Yet the poignancy is a conduit to redemption. Strafford and his Director Adam Fitzgerald take great pains to step in all the ugliness — to bring the audience to an uncomfortable climax. And yet Strafford’s winning stage presence, his song, humor and visible health give away the ending right from the start. He is more than ok. He’s thriving. It’s fine to let loose and laugh at the absurdity of near death.

And there are plenty of laughs to subvert the darkness. Strafford directly engages the audience — with eye contact and by literally including members in some of the sketches. The performer brings something special to this stunning and entertaining confession. He knows that we know what it’s like to struggle with addiction, or to watch the disease take hold of a friend or a family member. It’s a heartbreakingly universal experience and yet through pain, there is always, forever, humor.

As we approach a time of great economic, social and judicial insecurity, “Methacular” doesn’t offer any easy answers. As Strafford says toward the end of the show, he’s not sure why he stayed in New Jersey and got sober at last. He “just did.” It’s as arbitrary an admission as it is inspiring. Perhaps it’s true of human nature that invariably, we get sick of being stuck and isolated. And we can laugh at ourselves on the path to enlightenment.

“Methtacular” ran through November 12 at the Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1700 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.