REVIEW: A Guide For The Perplexed (Victory Gardens)

Brilliant acting heightens uneven script


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Victory Gardens Theater presents
A Guide for the Perplexed
By Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by
Sandy Shinner
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
Through August 15  |
Tickets: $20–50  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Chicago sees a lot of very good acting. Yet every once in a while an actor really socks you in the eyes with the difference between good and great. That’s Kevin Anderson in a Joel Drake Johnson’s quirky dark comedy, A Guide for the Perplexed, now in world premiere at Victory Gardens.

Weiler and Anderson, V Every movement, every line of Anderson’s body adds meaning to his brilliantly nuanced performance. Together with Francis Guinan, another highly talented Steppenwolf ensemble member, he makes such mundane acts as making a bed or feeding fish hilarious.

Anderson plays Doug, a 50-something loser who’s just left a five-year prison stretch. Exhausted mentally and physically, with nowhere else to go, he’s reluctantly staying in the den at his sister Sheila’s house on the North Shore — much to the dismay of her nerdy, stressed-out husband, Phillip (Guinan).

Already coping with his own crises, including his collapsing marriage and a deteriorating relationship with his teenage son, the neurotic Phillip’s ill-equipped to deal with his passive-aggressive brother-in-law’s uneasy return to freedom. Sheila, played by Meg Thalken in a series of brief phone calls, is away on business. Phillip, out of work and demoralized as the result of a criminal accusation that may or may not be accurate, spends his time gardening, cooking, reading romance novels and quarreling with his bright, but troubled, gay son Andrew (Bubba Weiler).

Andrew vents to his uncle, who makes caring, though clumsy efforts to help. In a sensitive performance, Bubba Weiler exudes a sometimes over-the-top teen angst.

The title of this dysfunctional-family story is taken from the esoteric text by medieval Jewish philospher Moses Maimonides aka Rambam. Andrew, a Hebrew scholar, tells his uncle that Maimonides offers a rational guide to the "problems of living." But when Doug presses for examples of what the great thinker had to say about their own specific troubles, Andrew cannot answer.


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The final, bizarre addition to the cast of characters is Betty, a prosperous woman from Cincinnati, one of Doug’s many prison pen pals. To his consternation, she’s driven all night, arriving at 6 a.m., to shower him with gifts and confess that she’s fallen in love with him through their mail correspondence. Cynthia Baker’s Southern-belle portrayal seems overly cheery and restrained, not nearly lovesick enough.

The action rotates indoors and out on a neat revolving set by Jeffrey Bauer that nicely evokes upper-middle-class suburbia, but its measured revolutions unnecessarily slow the pace. Meanwhile, Johnson’s script spins dizzyingly back and forth between absurd humor and bleak emotional outbursts.

Often, it works, such as in a highly evocative monologue in the second act where Guinan brilliantly describes the pleasures of grocery shopping as relief from depression. But such comic delicacy clashes with the heavy melancholia of the serious moments, and the abrupt, unsettled conclusion leaves viewers without catharsis.

In the hands of less-skilled actors, this play might not be worthwhile. This cast, however, puts A Guide for the Perplexed on the recommended list.

Rating: ★★★

Note: Suitable for ages 14 and up.

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Production Cast

Kevin Anderson* (Doug), Cynthia Baker* (Betty), Francis Guinan* (Phillip), Meg Thalken* (Sheila), Bubba Weiler (Andrew)

*Denotes a member of Actors’ Equity Association,the union of professional actors and stage managers.

Production Creative Team

Joel Drake Johnson (Playwright) is one of the newest members of Chicago ‘s Victory Gardens Theater Playwrights Ensemble. The critically acclaimed, Jeff nominated Four Places was produced by Victory Gardens in the spring of 2008. It is currently playing in LA where it has received unanimous praise from the critics and an extended run. His earlier works at VG, Before My Eyes and The End of the Tour, were also Jeff-nominated for Best New Play and all three plays were directed by Sandy Shinner , Victory Gardens Associate Artistic Director. Johnson has won three Illinois Arts Council grants including one for A Blue Moon, which was first produced at Chicago Dramatists and also Jeff nominated for best new work. He got his start as a writer at Chicago ’s critically acclaimed Econo-Art Theater, which (under the leadership of Lynn Baber, Barb Reeder and Marc Silvia) produced such plays as Beautiful Dreamer. His other plays include As the Beaver, first produced by Zebra Crossing, and The Fall to Earth (Rick Snyder, dir.) which premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre and featured Tony Award Winner Rondi Reed. It was subsequently produced at The Penguin Rep, directed by Joe Brancato and featuring Tony Award Winner, Michelle Pawk. Steppenwolf later produced A Blameless Life (Anna Shapiro, dir.) and Tranquillity Woods (Sandy Shinner, dir.) as part of their 2005 and 2007 First Look Repertory. He has taught playwriting at Northwestern University, DePaul University and Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. He lives in Chicago and New Buffalo, Michigan where he is working on two new plays: The First Grade which was produced by the Aurora Theatre Company in the winter of 2010 and The Boys Room, a part of Northlight Theatre‘s Interplay and Steppenwolf Theatre’s First Look reading series and now a part of Victory Gardens 2010-11 season. Johnson is a member of The Dramatists Guild and PEN America.

Sandy Shiner (Director, Associate Artistic Director) has been with Victory Gardens for more than 30 years and, with Dennis Zacek and Marcelle McVay, was honored to accept the 2001 Tony Award® for Outstanding Regional Theatre on behalf of the theater. This world premiere marks her fifth collaboration with Joel: Four Places, The End of the Tour, Before My Eyes, all at Victory Gardens , and Tranquillity Woods for Steppenwolf’s First Look series. Most recently, she produced the inaugural IGNITION Festival which launched The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz and Year Zero by Michael Golamco. Last season, she directed Aditi Brennan Kapil’s Love Person for VGT, a showcase production of Jeffrey Sweet’s Flyovers at New York ’s 78th Street Theatre Lab and codirected (with Jessica Thebus) the revival of Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl. Other recent directing projects include the world premieres of I Sailed with Magellan adapted by Claudia Allen from Stuart Dybek’s novel, Memory House by Kathleen Tolan (Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival and VGT) and Trying by Joanna McClelland Glass, which transferred from Victory Gardens to off- Broadway’s Promenade Theatre. She directed the world premiere of Jeffrey Sweet’s Bluff here as well as at the 78th Street Theatre Lab in NewYork and Phoenix Theatre. Ms. Shinner is a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and was a finalist for the Joe A. Callaway Director’s Award for the New York production of Trying. She is an editor of Victory Gardens Presents: Seven Plays from the Playwrights Ensemble, which was published by Northwestern University Press. She has been an adjunct professor at DePaul and directed the world premiere of The Civic by Patrick McLean at DePaul this spring.

Jeffrey Bauer (Scenic Design) has designed for most of Chicago ‘s professional theater, opera, and dance companies, including Court Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, Wisdom Bridge , Northlight, Remains Theatre, Chicago Opera Theater, The Lyric Opera, Hubbard Street Dance and Ballet Chicago. Mr. Bauer served as the resident designer at The Body Politic Theatre during its heyday, at Court Theatre for six years, and has received the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Scene Design (Pygmalion at Court Theatre) along with four nominations. For the past twenty-five years Mr. Bauer’s work has been devoted to creating designs for new works and world premieres in opera, ballet, and theater. Such noted productions as: The Picture of Dorian Gray and Show Biz at Wisdom Bridge , Frida: the Last Portrait, Comedians and Gross Indecency at Court Theatre. Among his dozens of designs at Victory Gardens are Still Waters, The Long Awaited, Winter and Fossils (both with Julie Harris) and Trying (also in New York and Washington). Collaborations with Hubbard Street Dance include three world premieres, and most noted are his designs for Ballet Chicago’s The Gift Of The Magi and In A Nutshell, Gesualdo with PBS (Emmy Nomination), and Dracula, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cinderella, Can Can and Peter Pan (Grand Rapids Ballet) as well 6 years of collaborations on new dance works in Ann Arbor. Recent credits include Jack The Ripper (World Premiere, Grand Rapids Ballet), Love Person ( Victory Gardens ), and The Elixir of Love ( Ann Arbor ). Mr. Bauer received his BFA in Theatre and Music from Jacksonville University and an MFA in design from Northwestern University . He is co-founder and Artistic Associate of RPM Productions and is on the design faculty at The Theatre School at DePaul University.

Carol J. Blanchard (Costume Design) is returning to Victory Gardens Theater, where her work was last seen in Jacob and Jack. She has designed Cleveland Symphony’s Blossom Opera’s Falstaff, Skylight Opera’s La Traviata, La Boheme, The Barber of Seville, and The Marriage of Figaro, New York’s Hillman Opera’s Hansel and Gretel, Shakespeare in the Park’s Much Ado About Nothing and A Winter’s Tale, First Stage Children’s Theatre’s Seussical and The Sleeping Beauty, Karamu Theatre’s Devil Mas and Hamlet Jones, and the Champlain Shakespeare Festival’s Love’s Labours Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest. Her Chicago credits include Goodman Theatre/Silk Road Theatre’s Yohen, Drury Lane’s Barefoot in the Park and Of Thee I Sing, Porchlight Music Theatre’s Sweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures and Once on This Island, Appletree Theatre’s Wings and Match, PTAP’s 7 Doors and Einstein’s Dreams and The Silk Road Theatre Project’s Caravaggio, Merchant On Venice, Golden Child and Pangs of the Messiah. She has been honored with a Joseph Jefferson Award for Costume Design and an After Dark Award. She is a Professor Emeritus of Design at The State University of New York.

Todd Hensley (Lighting Designer) has designed many productions with Victory Gardens , including: Fossils; Rain, River, Ice, Steam; Hauptmann (Chicago and New York productions); Cahoots; Wheatley; and The Romance of Magno Rubio. Recent productions include Go, Dog. Go! for Chicago Children’s Theatre, The Lady With All the Answers for Northlight Theatre, La Rondine for The Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, and Carmen for Washington National Opera. He has designed operas for companies including Minnesota Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Chicago Opera Theater, Wolf Trap Opera, Skylight Opera Theatre, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Todd is a partner with Schuler Shook Theatre Planners and was proud to lead its team for Victory Gardens at the Biograph. Other Schuler Shook projects include Lookingglass Theatre, Millennium Park ’s Pritzker Pavilion and the upcoming theater building for DePaul University.

Andre Pluess (Sound Design) is based in Chicago. Credits include numerous productions for Court Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre (Artistic Associate), Victory Gardens Theater (Resident Designer), About Face Theatre (Artistic Associate), Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Northlight Theatre, and many other Chicago and regional theaters. Broadway credits: Metamorphoses, I Am My Own Wife, 33 Variations and The Clean House at the Lincoln Center. Mr. Pluess has received multiple Joseph Jefferson Awards and Citations, an L.A. Ovation Award, Barrymore Award, Drama Critics Circle Award, and Drama Desk/Lortel nominations for composition and sound design. Recent projects include: Legacy of Light at Arena Stage, Ghostwritten at the Goodman Theatre, After the Quake at Steppenwolf, Long Wharf, La Jolla, and Berkeley Rep; Argonautika at Lookingglass, McCarter, Berkeley Rep, and Shakespeare Theatre Company; The Lost Boys of Sudan at Victory Gardens and Children’s Theatre Company in Minnesota; The Clay Cart at OSF; A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Cal Shakes; and Endgame at Steppenwolf Theatre. Upcoming projects include: Equivocation at Seattle Rep, Merchant of Venice and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof both at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing both at the California Shakespeare Festival.

Grant Sabin (Prop Designer) primarily works as a set designer in Chicago , but also acts as the charge scenic artist at Pegasus Players Theatre. He has had the great opportunity to teach scenic painting for Northwestern University ’s Cherubs Program. He’s a company member and resident set designer for Dog and Pony Theatre designing their past productions of God’s Ear, Ape, Mr. Marmalade (Jeff Award Nominee), Dead City, Osama the Hero, and Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake). He’s a graduate of Columbia College , with a BFA in theatre design, where he was awarded the 2005 Michael Merritt scholarship for collaboration in theatre design. Recent set design credits include: Sweet Tea, About Face; Garage Rep, Steppenwolf; It’s A Wonderful Life, American Blues Theatre; Lucinda’s Bed, Chicago Dramatists; Assistant Set Design for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Chicago Shakespeare; Whiff of Anarchy, The Seldoms; The U.N. Inspector, Next Theatre; Forbidden Broadway, Royal George; Dashiell Hamlet, Hound of the Baskervilles, The Juniper Tree, City Lit; Augusta, ATC; A Prayer for My Daughter, The 4 –H Club/ Cowboy Mouth, Mary-Arrchie Theatre; Crossing California, Lifeline Theatre; Faster, Thief River, The Side Project; Blasted, The Sea Horse (Jeff Award Nominee), A Red Orchid Theatre; Leaving Iowa, Royal George Theatre and The Overture Center, WI; and The Gift, Chicago Ballet.

Tina M. Jack (Production Stage Manager) is excited to continue her eleventh season stage managing for Victory Gardens Theater. Some of her credits include The Lost Boys of Sudan, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Eurydice, IGNITION Festival, Relatively Close, Four Places, I Sailed With Magellan, Cynical Weathers, The Snow Queen, Denmark, Half and Half, Cradle of Man, Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams, Memory House, Symmetry, Berlin ’45, Hanging Fire, The Family Gold, Trying, Affluenza!, Anna in the Tropics, The End of the Tour, Unspoken Prayers, God and Country, The Old Man’s Friend, Glamour House, Immoral Imperatives, Fossils, Hay Fever, Blissfield, Cahoots, and Knock Me a Kiss. Some other Chicago credits include Collected Stories, Belfry, An American Daughter, and Coming of the Hurricane. Tina completed her MFA in stage management at Rutgers University . Other stage management credits include Don Giovanni, Hedda Gabler, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Tina has also worked in Business Theater. Tina is a proud member of Actors’ Equity Association.


NOTE: Cast List and Creative Team Bios courtesy of Victory Gardens website.


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