Chicago playwright Brett Neveu has received nearly unrivaled attention on local stages (not long ago, four of his plays opened in a single season). Yet mainstream success has eluded him, in large part, I imagine, because his ineluctable, often seemingly plotless scripts withhold the sort of narrative ease and emotional transparency theater audiences love. And given the hyperbolic media interest he surely knew A Red Orchid Theatre’s premiere of his new full-length play Pilgrim’s Progress would generate (not, mind you, because A Red Orchid has one of the most accomplished ensemble’s in town but because one particular ensemble member in the cast, Michael Shannon, has made some movies and is thus deemed more worth staring at than when he was just a great local actor), this should have been Neveu’s moment to cash in. But happily, Pilgrim’s Progress is about as perplexing as anything he’s written.
It doesn’t appear so at first. Neveu sets up an almost by-the-numbers dysfunctional-family black comedy, equal parts Sam Shepard, Edward Albee and, god help us, Nicky Silver. It’s Thanksgiving at the middle-American McKees. Patriarch Jim, a college acting teacher, fusses over his famous cranberry sauce while wife Melissa, a psychotherapist, rhapsodizes over a Bloody Mary. With their pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Rania, staring vacantly out the window, they ardently negotiate the details of a contract that will require her to speak to Thanksgiving guests about her recent trauma: she survived a bombing at the local abortion clinic. When college-age son Desmond finally shows up, he’s so smitten with his in-depth knowledge of soil science he can barely offer Rania the comfort she needs.
A more commercially minded playwright would mine this material for edgy wackiness. But Neveu’s world is exponentially more unsettled and unsettling. Gruesome, violent death perpetually lurks—at the abortion clinic, on the neighbor’s sidewalk, center stage in a production of The Glass Menagerie. The McKee parents resist this chaos by writing binding contracts for nearly every family decision. Desmond buries his head in Thoreau and Hume. And all three endlessly cite various literary, philosophical and scientific authorities, desperate to make the world adhere to piecemeal absolutes. In essence, they live prefashioned lives, leaving them unable to help (or even comprehend) Rania, the only McKee who’s experiencing life in the moment—although she experiences little beyond paralysis.
Pilgrim’s Progress presents monumental stylistic challenges: it’s not parody, satire, farce, or horror but somehow all of these. Director Shade Murray astonishingly fashions a world at once lucid and surreal, sensible and senseless. His exemplary cast’s layered, precise performances make all but the most overconceptualized moments true. Those moments accrue late in the show, making for an unsatisfying conclusion. But the journey there is gloriously, disquietingly puzzling. v