REVIEW: A Separate Peace (Steppenwolf Theatre)

The drama begins when the summer ends

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Steppenwolf For Young Adults presents:

A Separate Peace

 

by John Knowle
adapted by Nancy Gilsenan
directed by Jonathan Berry
through March 19th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Steppenwolf’s production of John Knowle‘s A Separate Peace, adapted by Nancy Gilsenan and directed by Jonathan Berry, becomes more engaging as its characters are exposed to the world outside the boundaries of their boarding school, particularly the looming threat of World War II. The opening scenes, effective in conveying the rambunctious energy of the boys during the summer, lack a strong conflict, but once the seasons change and adulthood inches closer, the show gains emotional resonance.

Roommates Gene (Jake Cohen) and Finny (Damir Konjicija) are holding onto the vestiges of their childhood, inventing ball games and jumping out of trees, and while Gene prepares for life beyond their boyish existence, Finny deludes himself with ideas of eternal youth. Konjicija’s energy nears obnoxious levels as he leaps around the stage cajoling his schoolmates into participating in his juvenile antics, but moment of vulnerability prevent Finny from grating on the nerves. The character’s denial of the war overseas reveals a young man afraid of his mortality beneath the charismatic, carefree exterior, but when tragic events prevent him from ever serving his country, his fear is replaced by a greater feeling of shame.

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At the core of the play is Gene and Finny’s relationship, and while Gene is overshadowed by his roommate, both actors are equally captivating. The emotional depth that Cohen brings to his character prevents him from seeming malicious when camaraderie becomes jealousy, and there is genuine remorse for his actions in the later half of the play. The production is bookended by Gene’s monologues, and Cohen does an admirable job setting the tone of the production: a bittersweet journey through one man’s memories. 

Berry’s direction of the opening and closing sequences captures the free flowing imagery that constitutes the mind’s recollections, further emphasized by Chelsea Warren‘s set. An amalgamation of the primary locations of the play, it features an epic tree branch hanging over the boys’ dorm room, the branch’s presence both a reminder of youth and a foreboding harbinger of doom.

As Finny’s life is forever changed, so is classmate Leper’s (Will Allen), the bookish wallflower who enlists when he turns 18. When Leper escapes from basic training, the play explores the emotional and mental damage of military culture, demystifying the boys’ illusions about the service. Allen’s terror as Leper recognizes his deteriorating mental state is chilling, and gives the final image of the play, men in military uniform marching toward an uncertain fate, incredible strength.

Rating: ★★★

 

Extra Credit:

By John Knowles

Adapted by: Nancy Gilsenan

Directed by: Jonathan Berry

Featuring: Ensemble member Alan Wilder (Mr. Prud’homme) with Will Allan (Leper), Chance Bone (Brinker), Jake Cohen (Gene), Curtis M. Jackson (Chet), Damir Konjicija (Finny) and Govind Kumar (Bobby).

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