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: Trust (Lookingglass Theatre)

An uncompromising, heart-wrenching look at internet predators.

 
 

Trust-Reshoot-Final_normal

 
Trust
 
By David Schwimmer and Andy Bellin
Directed by David Schwimmer and Heidi Stillman
At: Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan
Through April 25 (more info)

By Catey Sullivan 

Toward the final third of Trust, one of the supposed good guys tosses off a line that shows with stark authenticity how victims of internet pedophilia and so called “date” rape are brutally, casually and constantly re-victimized by mainstream society.

Raymond Fox, Allison ToremFourteen-year-old Annie (Allison Torem) has been raped by a 35-year-old she met online when he was posing as a high school sophomore. Her father Will (Philip R. Smith), having just jeopardized a major client at work, finally explains to a colleague that he’s been distracted because of the crime. The co-worker, horrified, sympathizes. Will keeps talking, explaining that Annie’s rapist groomed her for months in chat rooms before meeting her at a mall and then taking her to a hotel room.

Oh,” says the colleague (Keith Kupferer) with palpable relief. “I thought you meant she was attacked. “

It’s then that you realize that Annie hasn’t been victimized only by a pedophile. She’s also getting it from upstanding, law-abiding adults – the sort of good people charged with keeping children safe in any civilized community. Trust illustrates with harrowing accuracy the vast, ingrained and wholly accepted practice of how that safety is violated by a society that routinely diminishes rape’s violence by qualifying it: If the rape happened on a date, if it was by an acquaintance, if the victim wasn’t snatched by a stranger, if she went to the hotel room without screaming, if she sent suggestive e-mails before hand – well then, phew. That’s not so bad. At least it wasn’t the bad kind of rape.

Except for of course, it was. All rape is bad. And those facts are driven home relentlessly in Trust, penned by David Schwimmer and Andy Bellin (based on a screenplay by Bellin and Rob Festinger).

Directed for the Lookingglass Theatre Company by Schwimmer and Heidi Stillman, Trust isn’t a perfect play. It has its movie-of-the-week moments. But it also packs a high-intensity emotional wallop, thanks to an overall excellent ensemble and an extraordinarily powerful performance from Torem as Annie. Moreover, it’s with merciless authenticity that Trust depicts the ever-increasing circle of damage that occurs as a result of Annie’s rape. The high-school soccer player is the immediate victim, but Trust also shows how her attacker (Raymond J. Fox) thoroughly poisons her whole family.

The piece is also uncompromising in its refusal to tie everything up. Unlike on television’s CSI, sex crimes tend to drag on for months and often, even years. The cops are understaffed. The FBI spends most of its budget fighting terrorists. And guys like the one who devastated Annie? The know how to vanish. As Torem’s heart-breaking performance illustrates, they also know how to manipulate the victim until black seems white and bad seems good. Despite what police, her therapist and her parents tell her, Annie “knows” that the man who raped her loves her. Even as her behavior grows erratic and her moods ever darker, she believes all would be well if only she were left to be with the man that she loves as deeply as he loves her.

Were it an easier play, Trust would end when Annie finally faces the worst about her attacker, the promise of recovery a certainty. But to its credit, this is no an easy play. Annie confronts the worst, and then spirals dangerously downward, moving from angry to suicidal in the time it takes to call up a Myspace page.

Amy J. Carle, Allison Torem, Morocco Omari, Philip R. Smith Philip R. Smith
Spencer Curnutt and Allison Torem Trust-porch

With an equally vivid and disheartening sense of truth, Trust also shows how  mass-marketed pop culture  often seems designed to provide pedophiles with constant stimulation. Structurally speaking, it’s a bit contrived that Annie’s father is immersed in an ad campaign that glorifies adolescent sexuality. Contrived or not, it works. It’s tragic and ironic that Will’s career has him bringing the ‘tween market to the Academic Appeal (read: American Apparel) clothing corporation via images of barely pubescent boys and girls posing in their underwear. If Annie’s rapist wants to stoke his libido, all he has to do flip though Elle for Girls.

The taut, 90-minute drama also knocks the foundation out from under the fallacy that allows wealthy, stable and loving families to believe they are immune to tragedies like the one that unfolds in Trust. Victims like Annie, so many misguidedly insist, are the product of neglectful parents, poverty or broken homes. Yet Annie’s Wilmette family is close. They eat together. Her parents monitor her chat room buddies. Against the wiles of a predator, they’re sheep obliviously headed for the slaughter.

There is no happy ending here, just a sense that maybe Annie and her family will somehow survive, perhaps stronger, perhaps wiser, certainly sadder and angrier and robbed of a priceless, innocent confidence in the basic goodness of their world.

With  its final scene, Trust leaves the audience heart-wrenched and exhausted .

Whether the script would have that same emotional heft with an even slightly less seasoned cast is a valid, question. Annie’s parents, her best friend, the assorted social workers and FBI workers – all are saddled with characters who react more than anything else. In an ideal dramatic world, the story that propels the characters as much as the characters propel the story. Here, the latter dominates.

Despite that, Trust works dramatically. It is also visually strong, with appropriately tech-heavy use of computer projections, video (Tom Hodges), and IMs appearing as characters type them.

Slick and riveting, Trust is a show of urgency and – sadly – great timeliness.

Rating: ★★★½

 

 

Resource Guide

Our Lead Community Partner, Rape Victim Advocates, has created the following resources on families and technology.

Lookingglass Theatre’s “Our Town” – starring David Schwimmer – the rave reviews are in!

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Check out the Looking Glass Theatre‘s “Our Town” cast photo gallery at ChicagoTribune.com, starring David SchwimmerOur Town plays at the downtown theatre through April 5th.  Info and tickets here.

UPDATE – REVIEWS

Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times: Apart from its (“trussed up”) set, the Lookingglass “Our Town” — co-directed by Anna D. Shapiro and Jessica Thebus and featuring 13 members of the close-knit ensemble — is a fairly straightforward, gently elegiac interpretation of the play.   (Entire review here). Rating: Recommended

Michael J. Roberts at ChicagoPride.comLookingglass gives us an older but wiser ‘Our Town’.  It is in the third act, however,that Shapiro and Thebus strike gold with the Lookingglass actors and where the casting choice of using older actors to play George and Emily……there is a gravitas that can only come with the experience of life. Moreover, the final moments with Schwimmer collapsing on his wife’s tombstone left nary a dry eye in the house, including mine.  (Entire review here.)

(Catey Sullivan at Examiner.com: ‘Our Town’ a staggering take on a timeless drama (Entire review here)

Chris Jones at his Chicago Tribune theater blog The Theater Loop: Iconic play mirrors Lookingglass’ Journey…Schwimmer the emotional core of ‘Our Town’ in search of a small town. (Entire review here.)  Rating: «««

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Cast of “Our Town”.  More pics here.

Tribune photo by E. Jason Wambsgans / February 5, 2009

From YouTube: Meet the cast of “Our Town”. 

In this video: David Schwimmer, Joey Slotnick, David Catlin, David Kersnar, Laura Eason, Thomas J Cox, Andy White, Heidi Stillman, Raymond Fox, Patia Bartlett, Philip R Smith, Tracy Walsh, Louise Lamson and Kevin Douglas

More Lookingglass Theatre YouTube videos here.

 

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Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (Chicago Sun-Times)

 Requiem - smaller 1  

 Hedy Weiss, theater-critic extraordinaire for the Chicago Sun-Times, has put together an excellent list of her 10 favorite plays of 2008.  Along with the list, Hedy notes the wonderful year Chicago theater has had on the national stage:

…this was the year that Steppenwolf Theatre picked up five Tony Awards for its Chicago-bred Broadway production of Tracy Letts‘ “August: Osage County” before the cast crossed the pond to remount the show at London’s National Theatre, and when the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was feted with the “Best Regional Theater” Tony.

Continuing:

But that was just the beginning. Next Theatre‘s production of the new musical “Adding Machine,” was hailed in its Off Broadway incarnation, with director David Cromer racking up plaudits for his work on that show, as well as for his revelatory revivals of “Our Town” (at the Hypocrites) and “Picnic” (at Writers’ Theatre). Profiles championed the work of incendiary playwright Neil LaBute to grand effect. Remy Bumppo earned laughs with its tale of financial chicanery in a revival of an Edwardian classic, “The Voysey Inheritance.” And director Sean Graney experimented boldy with productions of “The Threepenny Opera” and Marlowe‘s “Edward II.”

 columbinusruinedcolumbinus2 amadeus

Now here are Hedy Weiss’s favorite productions in 2008:

 

1. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); performances: Malcolm Durning, E.Faye Butler
     
2. Ruined  (Goodman Theatre)
by Lynn Nottage
Weiss comments: Worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, the play will soon move to New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.
 
     
3. Gatz  (Elevator Repair Service Theatre)
by John Collins
 
     
4. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director)
 
     
5. Requiem for a Heavyweight  (Shattered Globe)
by Rod Serling
Standouts: Lou Contey (director)
 
     
6. Amadeus  (Chicago Shakespeare)
by Peter Schaffer
Standouts: Gary Griffin (director), Daniel Ostling (set designer); performances: Robert Sella, Robbi Collier Sublett, Elizabeth Ledo, Lance Baker
 
     
7. As You Like It  (Writers’ Theatre)
by William Shakespeare
Standouts: William Brown (director), Performance: Larry Yando
 
     
8. Drowsy Chaperone  (Cadillac Palace Theater)
by Laura Wade
Standouts: Casey Nicholaw (director)
 
     
9. Around the World in 80 Days  (Lookingglass)
Standouts: Laura Eason (adaptor/director); Performances: Philip R. Smith, Kevin Douglas, Joe Dempsey, Ravi Batista, Anish Jethmalani, Ericka Ratcliff, Nick Sandys and Rom Barkhordar
 
     
10. Columbinus  (Raven Theatre)
by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Standouts: Greg Kolack (director); Performances: Matthew Klingler and Jamie Abelson
 

To see the Hedy Weiss’s complete description and thoughts on her favorite plays, click here.