Review: Jackalope Theatre’s “Moonshiner”

Jackalope Theatre Sets the Right Period Mood for Moonshiner

Moonshiner

Jackalope Theatre presents

Moonshiner
by Andrew Burden Swanson
directed by Gus Menary
thru Saturday, August 29th (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Moonshiner, a world premiere play by breakout playwright Andrew Burden Swanson, has a lot going for it. Under the direction of Gus Menary, its talented cast invests its characters with all the heft and vitality needed to steer what could have been a thoroughly maudlin work toward deeper grounding in American realism. Swanson’s strengths as a young playwright demonstrate the capacity to maintain a strong dramatic arc that builds tension and suspense without sacrificing character development. But perhaps the most inspired choice by Jackalope Theatre Company in setting the play was selecting the EP Theatre space (map) for its second full-length production.

Moonshiner Everything at the EP space contributes to the production’s Prohibition Era atmosphere–from its pressed tin ceiling to the smell of wood to its molded, movie palace faces and, finally, to its lack of air conditioning. So wear light, comfortable clothing, and be ready to fan yourself like a Southern lady, because there is more than enough here to transport an audience back to rural 1930s Tennessee. Special mention goes to sound designer Justin Cyrul for creating the perfect music to sustain the mood.

Carl (Chris Chmelik) and Isaac (Jeremy Khan) are two cousins just getting by in the Depression on Carl’s clandestine rum running and Isaac’s ownership of the house that they live in together. But conflicting forces conspire to tear apart what little they have of family life.

The mercenary Mrs. Cartwright (Patti Roeder) has her eye on Isaac’s property and may think him an easy mark because of his blindness. Her niece Constance (Caroline Neff) spares nothing in warning Isaac of her aunt’s true intentions and Isaac’s blindness merely covers a deeper innate gift all his own. Meanwhile, Carl’s illegal activities meet further complications upon the revelation that the sheriff’s daughter has gone missing.

Menary does a great job enjoining his cast to keep it real. Some of the roles in Swanson’s work are stock Southern characters dangerously bordering on stereotype. So we have Forsythe (James Erico) and Gabbleman (Jim Elder) as the polite, but corrupt and menacing, sheriff’s deputies; Virgil (Wes Perry) as a bit of a Bubba, and Mrs. Cartwright as the typical, hypocritical church lady. What prevents the play from becoming trite is both the direction and the psychological pithiness and humor of Swanson’s dialogue. He shows that he can write characters that go against the predictable grain with Carl’s moonshiner boss, Dwayne (Bill Hyland), and the feisty, independent niece, Constance. The role of Isaac could have devolved into stereotype, but is spared that by an intelligent, deeply humanizing performance by Khan.

But Carl may be the masterpiece of characterization in the play and Chmelik portrays his erotic, troubled, and mercurial nature right up to its suspenseful end. Here is where all the efforts to manifest a cohesive, realist, ensemble work pay off and the entire cast and crew can take pride in their achievement. The only thing lacking over all may be in pacing. The slower lifestyle of the rural South shouldn’t be replicated in dramatic time on the stage.

With action sequences that include fights (fight choreography by Ryan Bourque) and gunfire, you’ve got a play that could very well translate to film. But I hope Swanson keeps his talent in Chicago just a little longer. I also hope Jackalope Theatre’s career is a long one, especially if it keeps producing original works like this one that are “deeply rooted in the American mythos.”

Rating: «««½