BEST OF THE YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL
Over the past six years Pegasus Players have workshopped and produced 23 plays, selected from over 1,100 entries, for their annual Young Playwrights Festival. These Chicago-area playwrights, most of them high school age, get the benefit of seeing a fully realized production with a professional cast directed by a prominent local director. And with this festival Pegasus provides not only a forum for young talent but an excellent barometer of the issues concerning a new generation of teenagers. The plays themselves may range from the naive to the precocious, but all deal with strong subject matter, offering a reflection of society that’s somehow more on target than that of many playwrights who are more accomplished. These young playwrights don’t seem to have any agenda–they’re mostly interested in telling it like they see it, making up in honesty what they may lack in sophistication.
“The Best of the Young Playwrights Festival” offers encore presentations of past productions (under new directors) that deal in such weighty matters as child abuse, racial roles, sex roles, dead-end lives, and the angst peculiar to teenagers on solitary midnight jaunts.
There’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Love Someone, written by Rimini Butler and directed by Warner Crocker, is a story of child abuse that treats the abusive mother (Bridgett Williams) as tenderly as it does her battered, frightened son (Byron Stewart). Butler’s sympathy for the mother–who many young people might have been tempted to cast as a villain–shows extraordinary insight.
Off Highway 21, by Christi Rankin, tells of Darlene (Kathryn Marie Smith), a waitress in a rural diner whose dream of becoming a teacher is crushed by various customers, both cruel and kind. A businessman stopping in with his family offers condescending and loudly audible observations on the waitress’s character: “Her life saddens and disgusts me,” he says. The owner of the diner advises Darlene that she’ll never be more than a waitress, while a smitten trucker gently implies that life as a meek housewife–his–would suit her best. A college boy feigns interest in her aspirations but brutally rejects her when it becomes clear she won’t repay his interest in sexual terms. Susan Leigh’s sensitive direction saves the denizens of this coffee shop from caricature, and Rankin’s script clearly communicates the desperation of a young woman whose choices are systematically stripped from her.
The most provocative of the four pieces here is Marvin McAllister’s I Got Hundred Dollar Gym Shoes . . . Felix (Rick Schnier), a nice boy from the north side, meets up with Leon (Ray Thompson), a charismatic youth from the south side, who promptly relieves Felix of his expensive gym shoes, claiming that “you, my friend, look awkward in them.” He also strips Felix of his wristwatch: “It doesn’t go with your pigmentation.” Felix’s subsequent quest, first for safety, then for revenge, takes him on a nearly surreal tour of the south side. Felix’s stiff, politically correct views are challenged–only when he’s literally walked a mile in another kid’s shoes can he tailor those views to accommodate human nature. Under Michael Myers’s precise direction this piece is raucous, fast, and funny, but never sloppy. Byron Stewart does a very fine turn as Leon’s father, a manic but philosophical cabbie, who swears that as far as father-son relationships go, “That Cosby stuff don’t work.”
The Chevy Odyssey, by Clarence Lang, turns a late-night ride up the lakeshore into a poetic journey. Graeg (John Risso), a self-proclaimed loner, takes a ride in his beloved Chevy and muses on life, glorying in his loneliness, the night, and the ache of being young and in awe of the universe and all the possibilities it holds for him. Warner Crocker’s imaginative and visually compelling staging–the Chevy is a La-Z-Boy recliner behind a pair of real headlights–takes us with Graeg past the flickering, shadowy scenes he describes: a lover’s spat, a drug transaction, winos “taking Communion from brown paper bags.” The effect is nearly hallucinatory, and very lonely; The Chevy Odyssey is a good closer for the Best Fest.
The world Graeg describes as waiting for him, with its potential for abuse, closed-mindedness, and failure, is a world that crops up in all the plays presented on this program. On a more optimistic note, Lang also seems to speak for the other young playwrights when he talks about ambition–as yet unfocused, but very strong. “I want to leave a footprint so damn big,” Graeg says, “that people will think it’s a sinkhole–when they step in it they’ll break their legs.”