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: ★★★

 

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Review: Steppenwolf Theatre’s ‘Up’

To dream or to be responsible…

Up-1Ensemble member Ian Barford and Tony Hernandez in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Up by Bridget Carpenter, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Up

By Bridget Carpenter
Directed by Anne D. Shapiro
Runs through August 23rd
Steppenwolf Theatre

Review by Timothy McGuire

We all struggle between our desire to chase after our dreams and personal aspirations, and the responsibilities we have to take care of our finances and personal relationships. Bridget Carpenter’s “Up” now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre follows the balancing act of a middle aged man with no specific conventional goals as he tries to turn his dreams into reality and support his family in the middle of a tough economic climate. Along with the “dream chaser,” Up follows an average middle-class family proudly in love with the unconventional passions of their husband/father, but questioning the practicality of such a lifestyle as they mature and their financial security is at stake.

Ensemble member Ian Barford and Lauren Katz in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Up by Bridget Carpenter, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro.  Photo by Michael Brosilow. Walter Griffin is thoughtfully played by Ian Barford. In Walter’s youth he once achieved “stardom” when he attached 45 helium balloons to a lawn chair and took flight solo, 16,000 feet in the air. Years later Walter is still chasing after those dreams of greatness and that sense of freedom. Now married and with a teenage son, Walter spends his time brainstorming and trying to think of his next big idea while his wife provides for the family by working as a mail carrier.

IanBarford-JakecohenIn their youth Walter’s Wife Helen (Lauren Katz) fell in love with Walter due to his adventurist heart and his relentless pursuit for greatness. Their son Mikey (Jake Cohen) idolizes his father’s passion for the joys in life and his courage to pursue an unconventional lifestyle. They have always understood and respected their husband/father but when Helen’s hours get cut at the post office and Mikey meets a new friend that opens his eyes to the necessity of being able to financially provide, their patience with Walter wears thin.

With the daily stresses of bills and constantly having to be the rational mind in the family Helen asks Walter to get a job. Once smitten with the dream chaser inside her husband she now finds herself desiring the stability of a conventional man and pleads for just one day to relax and not have to worry. Helen speaks about her imaginary husband, which represents the change in her feelings towards the man that Walter is. In a flashback you hear Helen refer to her imaginary boyfriend as boring, being someone that is not as stimulating as the actual man she is with. Now married, she refers to her imaginary husband as a provider and a man that supports and takes care of his wife’s needs. Her imaginary husband represents the characteristics that Walter does not posses, but now she wishes he did.

Rachel-Brosnahan-Jake-Cohan Starting his sophomore year of high school Mikey meets a talkative pregnant classmate Maria (Rachel Brosnahan) who thoroughly makes an effort to get to know him through direct questions and honest interest. Rachel Brosnahan gives a wonderful performance of a non-stop curious teenage girl, to the point of driving you crazy as a teenage girl can do. As his relationship with Maria grows, Mikey recognizes the responsibilities that he would have to take on if he was to love her. Loosing faith in his father’s ethos of finding happiness outside of the “establishment,” Mikey wants to make plans to earn money and the stability that a 9-5 job can provide. Secret from his family, he takes on employment from Maria’s fiercely independent Aunt (Martha Lavey) and he finds a means to be a provider with his successful sales skills.

Lauren-Katz-Rachel-Brosnahan Eventually, to appease his wife and take care of his responsibilities as a father, Water accepts conventionality with a new job, and you can see his spirit breaking as he appears somber dressed in a suit and tie. Months later Walter appears up-beat and content with his new employment when he is on stage with Helen, but he demonstrates the overwhelming sense of defeat and depression when alone. His actions are peculiar for a hard working man, he still privately holds to his personal values and spits in the face of conventionality by burning and tearing-up his own money.

MarthaLavey-JakeCohen How does this family move forward as one when they all desire to walk in different paths? Can their love for one another overcome their differences in values?

Bridget Carpenter has written a creative story that captures the details of an average American family and brings to stage the struggles that occur as the demands of family life take precedent over one’s individual dreams and what to do when your life partner does not choose the same path as yourself as you mature. Each character’s situation in the play and their personality are used to explore the different viewpoints, and the direction that they desire to go.

tony-hernandez-tightropewalker The director, Anna D. Shapiro, does a fantastic job as usual taking the time to develop each character and constructing a performance that uses the details in the dialogue and the ability of the actors to capture the emotional states of their characters to build the turmoil this family is going through.

The end of the play might leave you a little lost as to what just happened to Walter, although the symbolism of the French tight-rope walker Philippe Petit (Tony Hernandez) being incorporated in the final scene points the audience in the direction of what is taking place on stage.

Rating: «««

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre
1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650
Through: August 23rd
Ticket Prices: $20-$70
For tickets and info: http://www.steppenwolf.org

A scene from Up featuring ensemble member Ian Barford with Lauren Katz

A select scene from Up featuring ensemble member Ian Barford with Tony Hernandez.

 

After the fold: Info regarding Steppenwolf’s Up, including all creators and personnel involved with the production, can be found after the jump (click on “read more”). Also an informative video featuring playwright Bridget Carpenter, explaining her inspirations for Up.

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