Review: Wonders Never Cease (Provision Theater)

  
  

Broad brush strokes make paradoxical play

  
  

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Provision Theater presents
   
Wonders Never Cease
  
Adapted and Directed by Tim Gregory
Based on the book by Tim Downs
at Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Provision TheaterCompany‘s world premier production of Wonders Never Cease has all the trappings of a wacky children’s comedy. Think “Miracle on 34th Street” meets “3 Ninjas”. Its overly simplistic portrayal of religion, faith, people, relationships, right and wrong makes it easy to follow but hard to stomach. Jokes arise out of tired premises, while characters are pulled from the archetype bargain bin. And the ending is so saccharine sweet, it will make your stomach turn.

Caroline Heffernan as Leah - Provision TheaterProvision is known for its religious-themed plays. Its mission is to produce works of "hope, reconciliation and redemption." Wonders Never Cease is no exception. It attempts to dramatically answer the question, "Do angels really exist?" Unfortunately, the sophomoric manner in which it illustrates this theme is so simplistic it’s insulting. It doesn’t matter if you’re a believer or not. The surface-level treatment this weighty topic is given is sadly laughable. By painting with such broad brush strokes, playwright Tim Gregory (who adapted and directed the play and serves as the company’s artistic director) inadvertently creates a number of paradoxes that muddle the meaning and erode the play’s potential.

Wonders Never Cease centers on Leah (the very talented and young Caroline Heffernan), a little girl who claims to have seen an angel on the side of the road. Those close to her are skeptical of her visions, including her mother (Katherine Banks), her mother’s boyfriend (Ryan Kitley) and her teacher (Matt Klingler). Leah’s bizarre visions raise eyebrows, and soon the school is recommending a complete evaluation.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend, Kemp, works as a nurse who isn’t afraid to overstep his authority. When he is assigned to care for a comatose female celebrity (Holly Bittinger), he devises a moneymaking opportunity. This is good news for him, considering he owes big bucks to an East Coast loan shark (Sean Bolger). Kemp, the loan shark, the celebrity’s agent (JoBe Cerny) and a book publisher (Michael Wollner) conspire to fool the celebrity by implanting her with a false religious vision. The plan is that when she eventually comes to, she’ll confuse the ruse for reality and write a best-selling novel. I don’t want to spoil it, but, suffice to say, things go awry.

Despite its weaknesses, the play has several strong points. First, the acting is top tier. Little Heffernan is a darling young actress. It’s hard to keep your eyes off of her. The performers are eloquent and dynamic. Unfortunately the characters they’ve been assigned to are paper-thin. In fact, half are offensive cultural stereotypes. You have an overweight mammy, a wise old black man, an Italian mobster and a Jewish talent agent who occasionally drops some Yiddish and, at one point, refers to himself as a parasite.

A scene from "Wonders Never Cease" at Provision Theater in Chicago.

The play delivers one comedic triumph—the spot on Oprah impression. The opening parody commercial is a funny bit, too. It’s for a book titled Lattes with God and seeks to lampoon all those feel-good, spirituality books on the market. But unfortunately, the play lacks the awareness to understand the slippery slope it establishes. If Lattes with God is absurd, what about the premise of this play? For that matter, what about the books of the Bible, which were notated by men who were also hearing the word of God? Does the presence of a latte make all the difference?

In addition, the play has a very myopic view of spirituality. The cartoonishly villainous bad guys try to create a false dogma, one that centers on the self. Their catchphrase is, "It’s all about you." I get it. This is the "me" generation, and blatant selfishness is wrong. But they confuse the notions of self-love and self-compassion with pride and greed. In the words of Ru Paul, "If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?"

On a technical level, Wonders Never Cease is a good play. The production level is high, and the acting is strong. But underneath the high-gloss finish is little more than marshmallow fluff. This is junk food for the brain. It’s accessible and immediately gratifying. But you’ll be hungry for some substance soon after.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Wonders Never Cease runs runs Saturday, April 30 through Sunday, June 5 at Provision Theater located at 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. The performance schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. ($28) and Sundays at 3 p.m. ($25). Student and group discounts are available. For tickets call 866.811.4111 or visit www.provisiontheater.org.

  
  

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REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird (Steppenwolf Theatre)

 

Talented cast tells a timeless story

 

 

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
To Kill A Mockingbird
   
Dramatized by Christopher Sergel
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by
Hallie Gordon
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

In David Mamet’s “Three Uses of the Knife, his non-fiction book on the art of playwriting, he describes his detest for plays that set out to soapbox. In his view, works that preach a message selfishly leave the audience out of the discussion. For if the spectator isn’t given the opportunity to provide his own interpretation of the work, isn’t it propaganda and not art?

But David Mamet’s word isn’t scripture. And there’s no question that To Kill a Mockingbird has artistic merit, especially in its current staged incarnation produced by Steppenwolf for Young Adults.

Yes, the story is pretty straightforward and provides little moral conflict for today’s audiences. We know from the beginning we are supposed to side with the stately Samaritan Atticus Finch (Philip R. Smith), and root against the slackjawed, pitchfork-toting townsfolk. We know that Tom Robinson (Abu Ansari) is innocent beyond a reasonable doubt and that Scout (Caroline Heffernan) is going to be as feisty as she is precocious.

So ethical dilemmas and non-archetypical characters aren’t To Kill a Mockingbird’s strong points. But the piece stands as an important historical drama, a reminder that although we live in a nation where everyone is created equal, some are more equal than others.

Of equal importance is the fact that the play offers up some really outstanding roles for young actors. And Steppenwolf’s stellar cast does not disappoint. Heffernan brings to the role of Scout a Punky Brewster tomboy quality that is tough without sacrificing cuteness. Zachary Keller nails Dill’s Alabama droll. Claire Wellin (who I last saw in Profile Theatre’s amazing production of Killer Joe) delivers an emotionally charged performance as Mayella Ewell, the young woman alleging rape. She is certainly an actress to watch.

Director Hallie Gordon conveys the smallness of Maycomb, Ala. by relying on a compact set that stays stationary throughout the production. The Finch’s home is steps from the Radley’s, which is only steps from Mrs. Dubose’s. This helps intensify the rising action of the play, as we can better sense the proximity of the danger that threatens Atticus and his family.

If you want to introduce your children to drama, Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a good start. Most seventh and eighth grade children have already read the book, so it’s safe to say the content is age appropriate for young teenagers. However, younger children may find the themes of murder and rape to be too adult.

For top-notch child talent and a timeless story, go see the Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Performances run October 12 – November 14, 2010 in Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street.  Weekday matinees (Tuesdays – Fridays at 10 am) are reserved for school groups only, with weekend (Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday) performances available to the public.

 

 

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REVIEW: Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol”

Get ready to love Christmas!

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Goodman Theatre presents:

 A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens
Adapted by Tom Creamer
Directed by
William Brown
thru December 31st (ticket info)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Pictured in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, directed by William Brown are (top to bottom) Penelope Walker (Ghost of Christmas Present), John Babbo (Ignorance) and Caroline Heffernan (Want).If you’re not filled with the holiday spirit yet, you will be after Goodman’s A Christmas Carol.  Now in its 30th year, Charles Dickens‘ tale of redemption is brought to life by an all-star cast of Chicago talent, creating a emotional journey through one man’s mistakes that will resonate long after the curtain goes down.

This year’s production begins with a beautiful medley of holiday songs that immediately establishes the idea that Ebeneezer Scrooge (Larry Yando) detests: Christmas brings warmth and calm to a cold, chaotic world. But happiness is not profitable, and the great Yando plays an excellent curmudgeon in the opening scenes. Hunched over books of number and growling at charity workers, he is the portrait of loneliness. Yando begins to transform as he is shown visions of the past and present, and almost immediately the images awaken feelings that have been long buried. A scene between young Scrooge (Andy Truschinski) and his fiancee Belle (Jessie Mueller) is particularly heartbreaking because of the dedication Yando brings to his attempts to change the events that have shaped (destroyed?) him. The journey through his past tortures him, but he cannot escape viewing his own actions – the ultimate punishment. The pain of these moments is heightened by the contrast between the nature of the prison and the characterizations of the jailers: the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Alex Weisman) and Present (Penelope Walker).

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Weisman, fresh off a Jeff award win for Timeline Theatre’s The History Boys, looks like he is having the time of his life as he flies across the stage, and his jolly nature is a great fit for the early moments of Scrooge’s past, especially the Christmas party at Fezziwig’s. Walker is beautiful in a massive gold and red gown, and she sprinkles glitter with ebullient laughter that forces a smile out of the coldest hearts. As Scrooge’s memories sour, so do his tour guides. The aforementioned scene between Scrooge and Belle stifles the gleeful fire that burns in Weisman, and as Walker reveals the disdain Scrooge’s peers have toward him, as well as the troubles they themselves face, she becomes an almost malevolent force. A scene where she introduces Scrooge to the two children that represent Ignorance and Want, crawling out from beneath her garment to maximum dramatic effect, is particularly haunting, and the perfect introduction to the most terrifying of Dickens’ heralds: the Ghost of Christmas Future. Major props to the Goodman design team for creating the horrifically huge puppet for this last ghost, giving the spirit an overwhelming dreadfulness.

ChristmasCarol-5 The supporting cast impresses, balancing the community’s spite toward Scrooge with the good cheer of the holiday season. The Cratchit family is the heart of the show, and Ron Rains brings a wonderful caring energy as the patriarch Bob, always showing respect to his cruel boss. The scenes in the Cratchit household are brimming with love between husband and wife, parent and child, and actor and script. Fiercely committed, the actors have found the beauty in their misfortune, making Tiny Tim’s (John Francis Babbo) death in the future all the more tragic.

While sadness and loss are major factors of Dickens’ tale, Goodman’s production is filled with humor and moments of pure glee. The party at Fezziwig’s is positively rollicking and Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s (Matt Schwader) Christmas dinner is a joyful celebration filled with music and laughter. Where the show is most successful, though, is in the final moments when Scrooge vows to redeem himself, and Yando skips, jumps, and laughs his way into the hearts of the audience, a humbug no more.

 

Rating: ★★★½

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