REVIEW: Cherry Smoke (side project theatre)

   
  

Strong performances evolve from uneven play

  
  

Bug and Duffy almost kiss

  
The side project theatre presents
 
Cherry Smoke  
  
Written by James McManus
Directed
Lavina Jadhwani
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

So much about James McManus’ play Cherry Smoke appalls the senses. The poverty, the violence, the paucity of adult care or concern about these dead-end kids who have no means, no education, and therefore no future. Playing now at the side project in Rogers Park under the direction of Lavina Jadhwani, their story seems foreign, like something out of a third-world country. But no, these are our slumdog millionaires—only there will be no millions to save these kids from their downward spiral.

Fish and Cherry - end exhaleMcManus bases his drama upon his own childhood experiences in Donora, PA. In an interview with Adam Szymkowicz, McManus recalls, “Our area was ravaged by poverty and many were not able to take advantage of even a primary education because of worsening family situations.” Donora, which also holds the dubious record of worst ecological disaster in US history, is a broken relic of the Rust Belt, so poor its only McDonald’s closed because people could no longer afford to eat there once the mill closed.

“But even in the ignorance, there was a beauty in both the language and the dreams,” says McManus. Even with little else, what the characters in Cherry Smoke have language and dreams. In their words we find a brutal kind of American primitive dialect.

At age 9, his father forces Fish (Dan Toot) into the fighting ring, thrown in to sink or swim against the punches of an older boy. His savage victory sets both his back alley fighting career and his psychology in a perpetual iron state of rage. He cannot shake his warlike disposition against any guy who looks at him or against life itself. When Fish roars, “It’s all nothing,” Dan Toot precisely captures nihilism carried out with the force of a dynamo. That Toot physically never lets up in a one hour, 40 minute performance is an achievement in sheer stamina, but he also knows how to sculpt nuances into Fish’s unending enmity against his life.

Only Cherry, who tells fortunes and sleeps in a car in the winter or down by the river in summertime, can understand, love, and tame him—but only to a degree. Incapable of controlling the rage that builds his fighting success, Fish perennially ends up in juvie, then in jail. Separation from Fish leaves Cherry to fall back into nervous depression—ending up as an invalid in the care of Bug (Jessica London-Shields) and Fish’s brother, Duffy (Peter Oyloe). While not Bonny and Clyde, McManus succeeds in crafting a legendary, impossible couple in Fish and Cherry and their almost magical relationship.

That’s not to say the play does not contain serious flaws. The plot is hampered by boxing clichés–the fighter needing to get out of the game but desperately going for one last fight. In fact, Fish’s final fight simply falls apart dramatically, with Fish going into flashbacks about his first forced encounter in the ring. Likewise, the birth of Fish and Cherry’s first born also veers into melodramatic overreach.

Cherry Smoke promoLondon-Shields gives an instinctive and delicate performance as the nervous, shy and unassuming Bug. Peter Oyloe’s performance as Duffy, though, almost washes out beside his bigger, badder brother. A scene in which Duffy is almost ready to kill Fish for breaking his hand restores stronger dramatic tension in Duffy’s psychological make-up.

Cherry Smoke jumps around and needs a serious rewrite to produce a much tighter play. I doubt you could get a clearer wake up call about the impoverishment of America’s Rust Belt youth.

  
 
Rating: ★★
  
  

 

Production Personnel

Cast

Jessica London-Shields, Peter Oyloe, Emily Shain, and Dan Toot

Creative/Production Team

Scott Butler (Dialects), Jesse Gaffney (Props), Sarah Gilmore (Sound), Meg Lindsey (Management), Michelle Milne (Movement), Rachel Sypniewski (Costumes), and Sally Weiss (Set/Lights)

     
     

REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play (ATC)

  
  

A Christmas window to an American past

  
  

Chrisopher McLinden, MaryWinn Heider - Its A Wonderful Life Radio Play - ATC Chicago

  
American Theater Company presents
  
It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play
  
Adapted by Joe Landry
Directed by
Jason W. Gerace
at
American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through Dec 26  | 
tickets: $35-$40  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is something warm and centering about American Theater Company’s perennial holiday offering, It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play. Tom Burch’s scenic design, a variety of warm wood tones set with holiday greenery, grounds the production in its vision of a solid, comforting past. Likewise, Katherine Stebbins’ late 40’s period costumes render a satisfying illusion of our parents or grandparents in their heyday—the ladies’ perfect period hair and makeup set off with bold poinsettia corsages; the men in period suits and sweaters, sporting red and white carnation buttonholers. Just sitting in the cast’s presence can feel as reassuring as Dad’s hand on your shoulder or Mom asking how your day went.

Joseph Anthony Foronda and Alan Wilder - Its A Wonderful Life Radio Play - ATC ChicagoDirected by Jason W. Gerace, one can slip as easily into the performance as into an old pair of slippers and that might be part of the problem. ATC’s cast has a lot of comfort to give and their meticulous, professional execution of an American classic unquestionably impresses. However, the production also has the tendency to oversell its stabilizing comfort and forget the dramatic verve that drove Frank Capra’s original creation. Thankfully, there are some things here that are even better than Capra’s iconic movie: Christopher McLinden and Mary Winn Heider produce much stronger romantic chemistry between George Bailey and Mary Hatch than Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed did; somehow the confrontation scenes between George and Mr. Potter (Alan Wilder) more potently expose Potter’s amoral duplicity.

But for the most part, the cast could kick up the energy just a notch. Most take on multiple roles and sometimes character distinctiveness gets lost in the mishmash–Frank Capra’s direction excelled in making each character’s personality stand out uniquely. Of course, there are notable exceptions. Steppenwolf stalwart Alan Wilder practically channels the ghost of Lionel Barrymore with his dead-on imitation of Mr. Potter. Joseph Anthony Foronda backs up the production solidly with his portrayals of George’s father, Uncle Billy and Joseph.

But the production offers something more than just a nostalgic replay of Frank Capra’s iconic film; it offers a communal reminder of the way we were—and might still be—at the height of historic uncertainty over what America is or where we are going. The dialogue still delivers the best critique of capitalism in the American dramatic canon. As a humorous anachronistic touch, though, Chris Amos entertainingly plugs neighborhood businesses. Just as in the old days the advertising is interspersed throughout the story. Promoting businesses that sell vegan treats certainly brings us back to the present—it is, after all, about paying the bills.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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