REVIEW: 2,000 Feet Away (Steep Theatre)

Sex offender drama criticizes but struggles to connect

 

2000-feet-away-poster

 
Steep Theatre presents
 
2,000 Feet Away
 
Written by Anthony Weigh
Directed by
Jimmy McDermott
at
Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 26th | tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Anthony Weigh’s 2,000 Feet Away isn’t your ordinary pedophile play; this time, the criminals are the victims. In the town of Eldon, Iowa, fear and paranoia drive citizens to terrorizing local sex offenders, and state legislation requires the criminals to stay 2,000 feet away from schools, parks, libraries, and bus stops. Sex offenders are forced out of their homes and into repulsive motels barely good enough for arson.  The play’s only erotic encounter between an adult and child shows the youth as more of an instigator 2000-feet-02than a victim, and an 18 year old boy is exiled for having sex with his girlfriend. Weigh has bold ideas regarding sexual crime in America, but never quite develops a solid plot and characters for his ideas to manifest through.

Weigh’s Eldon doesn’t feel like a real town but rather a collection of convenient personalities to assign philosophies to. His witch-hunting Iowans bare little resemblance to our libertarian-leaning western neighbors, and don’t have much personality beyond their one-dimensional stances on the issue of sexual crime. Why Eldon is packed to the gills with pedophiles is never explained, and makes the location seem like a cheap way to connect the play to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” an image that appears throughout the production.

There is an obvious sentimental attachment Weigh has to Wood’s painting, but its prevalence in the play is never made quite clear. Does the stern-faced patriarch represent of the citizens of Eldon, protecting their children from predators as he protects his gothic barn? Perhaps the pair are the ghosts of an America that doesn’t exist anymore, where hard work and obedience have been replaced by sexual deviance and social injustice? Its purpose is unclear, and does little to advance the plot.

/Users/hdleemiller/Pictures/Capture One Library/Output/.IMG_6917.tif After a creepy opening scene between adult A.G. (Benjamin Sprunger) and preteen Boy (Alex Turner), 2,000 Feet Away falls into a pattern of scenes where the citizens of Eldon express their personal feelings about sex crimes to their Deputy (Brendan Melanson), scenes that suffer by telling us the character’s emotions rather than showing them through meaningful interactions. The pace during these opening scenes drags due to a lack of forward motion, but Melanson’s portrayal of a lovable loser corrupted by the world around him is a highlight of the production. When Deputy encounters Girl, the SVU tween (deceptively mature Grace Goble), the play gathers steam and the plot finally gets rolling. As Deputy looks for a home for the displaced A.G., their relationship becomes the emotional center of the play, and the actors share good chemistry on stage.

Director Jimmy McDermott does a fine job with the material at hand, but the flaws of the script hurt the momentum too severely to fully recover. The ensemble works to build relationships where Weigh’s script struggles to connect, but the pace of the piece ultimately proves its undoing.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

 

 

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REVIEW: The Skin of Our Teeth (The Artistic Home)

One of theater’s strangest American families comes to life

 

SKIN_Antrobus Family night at home

The Artistic Home presents:

The Skin of Our Teeth

 
by
Thornton Wilder
directed by Jeff Christian
through March 21st (more info)

review by Ian Epstein

Jeff Christian and the clever folks over at The Artistic Home have done their dramaturgy research. In their production of Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth they look back to the circumstances that governed the original production of Thorton Wilder’s species-sized, odd-ball American classic.  From it’s original debut during the height of war-torn 1942, Christian looked to the original Broadway premiere as inspiration.

SKIN_Sabina gets scolded The play begins with the audience facing curtains as black and heavy as the Great Depression, an event still sitting as fresh on everyone’s minds as the Recession might for audience memeber’s today. A short intro video in digital imitation of home movies from the days when they were still on film introduces the audience to the Antrobus family.

Then the curtains part to reveal the Antrobus home in Excelsior, New Jersey.  Sabina (Maria Stephens), the hired help to the Antrobus family from the dawn of time until today, steps on stage wielding a feather-duster like a knife. She works herself into a frenzy about the weather. Sabina, clad in fishnets, heels and a thigh-length black maid’s dress, dusts and monologues and tells us where we are.

New Jersey’s so cold that the dogs are sticking to the sidewalk and there’s a glacier steamrolling Vermont so they have to let in the Woolly Mammoth and the Dinosaur (yes – both appear in the show).

But she starts to repeat herself and the audience is left to wonder if she’s even delivering the lines properly and just when it’s gone to far, Sabina pulls everyone out of the play and it becomes clear that Thorton Wilder is toying with the audience’s trust in one of those play-within-a-play type moments.  Sabina becomes Maria Stephens and she’s angry and doesn’t understand a word of this damn play so she starts ranting about Chicago theater and directors like David Cromer and Anna Shapiro and recent productions of “Our Town

The few updated lines that Sabina delivers as Maria (or is it the other way around?) are wonderful because they freshen up the script’s ability to play with its own fictitiousness.   To borrow from literary critic John Barth, "when the characters in a work of fiction become readers or authors of the fiction they’re in, we’re reminded of the fictitious aspect of our own existence."  And the effect is only exaggerated when the character opposes the role as vehemently as Stephens does.  The quips about Our Town productions and the snippety interactions with Wilder’s characteristic Stage Manager (Eustace Allen) return to the play a much-needed sense of surprise and possibility.

SKIN_Mrs. Antrobus-Are they alive Husband and wife John Mossman and Kathy Scambiaterra (the Associate Artistic Director and Artistic Director of Artistic Home, respectively) portray Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus in the spirit of the original, married Broadway actors Florence Eldridge and Frederic March.  They’re strong performance bolsters the show. And Maria’s over-the-top Sabina goes a long way.   Katherine Swan plays Gladys Antrobus with a fun sense of teenage blasé and and Nick Horst is as tempermental and willful as Henry Antrobus (a.k.a. Cain — who killed the other Antrobus son Abel…).

Joseph Riley‘s set and Aly Greaves’ costumes don’t match the pace or intelligence of the acting and in a show as long as this they become distracting.  Still, come for a good performances of one of American theater’s stranger families.

Rating: ★★½

 

   
   

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Review: Gift Theatre’s “Summer People”

Keen performances elevate ‘Summer People’s’ tenuous script

 summer_people_Rob_Belushi_Justin_James_Farley

The Gift Theatre Company presents:

Summer People

by Jenny Connell
directed by Paul D’Addario
runs through Dec. 13 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The Gift Theatre Company ensemble members Lynda Newton and Danny Ahlfeld open Summer People with a dramatic storm scene. We don’t yet know who this anguished couple is, but we understand that a daughter is missing, possibly dead; her father unreachable; and the relationship between the two on stage troubled.

summer_peopleIt’s a powerful scene, and these two dominate the production with keen performances throughout. Yet it creates a heavy foreshadowing over the rest of the play, which unfolds in a flashback to the preceding weeks.

Five damaged people have come together near Mount Desert, Maine, a place nicely sketched by Brendan Donaldson‘s set. Ahlfeld, we learn, is Scotty, manager of a campgrounds and general store there, a Vietnam veteran whose war experiences left him too emotionally scarred for any more ambitious life. Newton plays Kate, a Maine native who returns from New York City every summer with her family.

This summer, however, is different. Kate and her two daughters, Laura and Sam, arrive at their cottage as usual, but Kate’s husband has deserted them, upsetting all three. Kate struggles with single parenthood, loneliness and feelings of inadequacy.

Kate’s daughter Laura, also troubled by her emerging sexual awareness and the typical angst and rebelliousness of teenaged girls, fights with her mother – particularly as Kate and Scotty draw closer. Imaginative young Sam copes by videotaping everything that happens to show Dad what he’s missing and spends her time snooping around the campgrounds, especially at Site 54, where a clearly disturbed, newly discharged Marine grapples with the ghosts of his time in Iraq.

Ahlfield puts just enough Maine drawl into his voice without overdoing it, perfectly conveying Scotty’s laidback yet neurotic character in a fine counterpoint to Newton’s expressiveness as the often frenzied Kate. They create characters one immediately warms to. Ray Gray, a senior at the Latin School, and 9-year-old Grace Goble put in very natural performances as Laura and Sam.

summer_people_Danny Ahlfeld_Grace Goble As the young Marine, Rob Belushi (yes, his dad is Jim Belushi), often seems stiff -perhaps more so than the awkwardness his role demands. He loosens up only momentarily in a couple of scenes with Justin James Farley and Minita Gandhi, who play characters out of the Marine’s time in Iraq. Or perhaps it’s just that this character isn’t very well developed, but a sort of cardboard case of shell shock. Outside of his war experience, we learn nothing about him – not even his name.

While the first scene let us know something bad is going to happen, when it comes it’s a brief and abrupt anticlimax. The tragic final scene quickly becomes predictable, with far less drama than the opening, and the build up lacks tension. Director Paul D’Addario‘s generally good staging comes apart a bit, too. The restraint that serves most of the play quite well doesn’t fit here.

At 70 minutes, without intermission, Summer People feels like two-thirds of a play – short and somewhat tenuous. What there is, is worth seeing, but I’d have liked to have seen the rest. A longer, two-act script might have overcome the heavy-handed forewarning of the first scene, and conveyed something more than the obvious message that war makes people crazy.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Notes: Free parking is available in the gravel lot at 5237 W. Lawrence Ave. No late seating permitted.