The Crucible

Most of us who paid attention and did our reading in high school English Literature classes have come across “The Crucible.” I went on to earn a B.A. in the discipline in 2000, followed by an M.A. from Northeastern Illinois University in 2007.

Throughout the years of study and into my tenure as a Chicago theater critic with EDGE Media Network, the work of playwright Arthur Miller, and in particular, this allegory of 1950s era McCarthyism in the United States, has been a ubiquitous creative presence.

This past weekend as I took my seat for Director Jonathan Berry’s production of “The Crucible,” the kickoff to Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2017-2018 Steppenwolf for Young Adults (SYA) season, I thought there was nothing new to learn about Miller’s oft-produced work. I was wrong.

The story, per press materials, is well known: “The people of Salem are whipped into a bloodthirsty frenzy by a series of misinterpretations after a group of teenage girls are accused of dancing devilishly in the woods. Fearing retribution, the girls begin a chain of finger-pointing until neighbor turns against neighbor, whispers become testimony, fabrications become facts, and a once powerless teenage girl suddenly has the ability to decide the fate of all those around her.”

The synopsis is familiar, but Berry’s execution is all new. Arnel Sanciano’s spartan set design conveys the barren, cold, passionless external excesses of early American Protestant communities, while leaving literal room to demonstrate the complicated natures of Arthur Miller’s human subjects.

It’s a drab catwalk runway setup surrounded by chairs in which cast members rotate through the scenes as both subject and spectator. The device is spectacularly effective in delivering an ecosystem in which eyes are always watching, in which characters are present even when they’re not involved in a particular dialogue exchange.

Naima Hebrail Kidjo, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company newcomer, also brings fresh perspective to Abigail Williams, the lovestruck, scorned minister’s niece whom community members of all genders, age and religious devotion learn to fear. Her performance is well matched by Travis A. Knight, another Steppenwolf rookie, who conveys a flawed John Proctor’s moral conflict and steadfast determination to save his community from itself. Kidjo and Knight display an electric chemistry that does more than hint at the fleeting, mutual passion that once existed between the characters.

And this is a must if an audience is to believe to the lengths to which both Abigail and John will go to achieve their ends. Abigail is nakedly ambitious to become the second Mrs. Proctor, and manipulates the weaknesses of Salem residents into furthering her goal. These weaknesses are personified by supporting characters who could be accused of existing in one-dimension without the nuanced performances of the talented cast.

Cynical greed, thy name is Reverend Parris (Peter Moore). Ann Putnam (Stephanie Shum) is desperate to find a reason for the death and illness of eight consecutive children, and witchcraft will do. The saintly Rebecca Nurse (Millie Hurley) is willing to die for her conviction that Abigail’s accusations are the real evil at work.

In previous encounters with “The Crucible” text, the relationship between John Proctor and his betrayed wife Elizabeth (Kristina Valada-Viars) is an incidental bore. In the text as written, Elizabeth is merely a cipher for her spouse’s guilt and self-recrimination, a virtuous, suffering foil to Abigail’s id-driven Jezebel.

In Berry’s production, and animated by Valada-Viars prodigious gifts, this Abigail is afraid, angry, resigned, hopeful, loving and bitter in equal portions — exactly what an audience would expect from a woman forced pay for her husband’s transgressions publicly and privately. Because of this authenticity, the audience can more easily accept Proctor’s about-face rejection of Abigail and subsequent risk of his own life to restore Elizabeth’s honor.

The production runs two hours and 45 minutes, with a short intermission, a worthwhile investment of time. From the vantage point of late 2017, “The Crucible” may remind audience members of events more current than the 1950s congressional communist witch hunt. Berry’s interpretation is a civics lesson — past and present — in addition to engaging entertainment.

“The Crucible” runs through October 21 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org

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HIR

Amy Morton (Paige) and Em Grosland (Max)

Described in press materials as “a subversive comedy by celebrated playwright, actor, singer-songwriter and performance artist Taylor Mac,” I must own to feeling rather humorless as I exited the Chicago premiere of “HIR” this week. The original, 21st Century take on the dysfunctional family trope offers a realistic emotional experience for Steppenwolf Theater audiences. The trials of a household are usually hilarious, and heartbreaking, in(un)equal portions.

As the curtain rises, we meet Paige (Amy Morton). At first blush she seems to embrace a “woke,” flexible and free approach to marital relations, housekeeping and child rearing. Rules are made to be broken. In fact they must be in order to counteract a stultifying, regressive patriarchal society that values order and ownership above expression. Paige’s home is full of costumes, culture, whimsy and loving chaos.

Or is it?

Paige’s pseudo-liberation from the tyranny of a brutal marriage is gained not through determined agency or death. Rather her new world order is brought about by a simple quirk of destiny that sets off a linear regression for Paige and her husband Arnold (the monumentally talented Francis Guinan). They are a couple of children — Arnold in a cognitive and motor skill sense, Paige in a bitter, retributive and controlling expression of shifting power dynamics.

Into this landscape walks Isaac (Ty Olwin), a dishonorably discharged Afghanistan vet whose issues both predate, and are simultaneously exacerbated by a three-year absence from his family. Broken communication on both sides have left the family’s troubled history frozen in time for the PTSD-afflicted Isaac. His father is a bully. His mother is a work hausfrau and his sister looks to him for leadership. These truths and the horrors of the battlefield are what he knows. There is predictability in familiar discomfort.

The physical timeline of the production’s two hour and 15-minute run (with one intermission) spans one very long day. One in which a newly returned Isaac must adjust to a stroke-addled father, drugged into further decommission by a mother who disguises revenge as a form of experimental enlightenment. Isaac’s sister is now Max (Em Grosland), a precocious, transgendered teen who also serves as the namesake of “HIR.”

The dialogue includes a running discussion, replete with helpful chalkboard diagramming, of gender fluidity. “HIR” is the pronoun that bridges the male/female gap, welcoming and including everyone occupying space outside of staid, heteronormative boxes. The education is held up by Paige as detached and redemptive, and yet her rules for living 2.0 are perversely rigid and uncompromising. Where once Arnold represented the excesses of a fragile, yet dominantly violent male ego, Paige is the id run amok in one lane. Cleanliness, ownership and categories must be rejected wholesale.

What exactly either ideology has to do with the living, growing Max, searching for himself and establishing principles amidst psychological warfare is deliberately unclear. At one point, Isaac asks his sibling (insensitively) if his gender transition is driven by Paige’s anarchy. A more prescient question for all of the central characters, as well as the audience: Are any of our values and belief systems the product of enlightened free will? Or are they driven by history, environment and rebellion?

There are laughs aplenty sprinkled throughout the script. The different challenges confronting each character offer fertile ground for absurdity. All four performances are nuanced, complicated and fully formed work that defy categorization.

Yet I suspect few audience members will be chuckling during and after the production’s final scene. Mild spoiler alert: Max is the only one left standing. We’re left with the impression that Paige, Arnold and Isaac’s stories could only ever have ended one way. “HIR” journey has just begun — and is likely to be endured alone.

“HIR” runs through August 20 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre 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

the-fundamentals
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.