In ten short years, Jackalope Theatre Company has risen from a shoestring assemblage of Columbia College graduates mounting one play a year in decidedly out-of-the way locales to one of the off-Loop’s most valuable players, offering consistently well-crafted, socially engaged productions in its two Edgewater theaters. In less time than that, local playwright Calamity West (Hinter, Rolling), now a company member, has emerged as a leading aesthetic innovator of storefront realism as well as a tough-as-nails moralist (“What I’m always trying to do is teach lessons,” she told Performink last year). So as I took my opening-night seat for Jackalope’s bold, intelligent production of West’s ominous new drama and surveyed the sold-out crowd—a who’s who of young Chicago theater makers, all seemingly giddy with anticipation—I couldn’t help but think, This is the center of something extraordinary.
And on any given weekend, Chicago has another dozen such extraordinary centers where artists toil away trying to fashion a poetics muscular enough to reshape the world to their liking—or in the case of West’s new work, to her own horror.
In the Canyon consists of five extended scenes, each taking place on January 20 but separated by ten years or more. It opens in 2007, in a stark urban apartment where churlish Katie pointlessly knits a shapeless nothing while purposefully playing her stereo loud enough to disturb her uptight neighbor. In teeters roommate Hope, demonstrably queasy, her disaffected boyfriend Doug reluctantly in tow. The trio make for a snipey assemblage, everyone on edge as though something dreadful is in the offing.
It quickly becomes clear that Hope’s returned from having an abortion, and now none of the three knows how to relate to the others, even as they try to hold fast to whatever tenuous relationships they might have had a few hours ago. Katie and Doug, between whom clearly no love has ever been lost, can’t tend to Hope without belittling each other, and Hope can’t get anyone to understand that the abortion really wasn’t a big deal anyway. Eventually Katie and Doug flee the apartment (separately, of course), leaving Hope stranded until the same uptight next-door neighbor, a complete stranger, happens by and gives her an ovary massage.
It’s at oncemasterfully tense, unsettling, and comedic, among the best scenes West has written (and that’s saying something). And things only get more worrisome in the next, set in a barren church basement where Hope endures her parents’ crowing over Donald Trump’s inauguration that morning while a youth pastor condescends toward his belligerent, pregnant wife. To Hope, it’s all a familiar, bearable aggravation until she reveals to childhood friend Erin, an imagined source of empathy amid the objectionable onslaught, that she had an abortion a decade earlier. Erin’s pitiless condemnation leaves Hope sucker punched; she wakes in an instant to a political reality more insidious and threatening than she’d imagined.
And in the next leap forward, set in 2027, West amplifies that reality exponentially. Curfews. Checkpoints. Water rations. Universities, libraries, and newspapers shut down. And dire consequences for any woman who’s ever had an abortion. Hope knows her number may be up, and to keep from imploding she confides her secret to her endlessly supportive husband, Charlie—only to suffer a rebuke so brutal she stands to lose him, their daughter, and any semblance of safety.
These three scenes, which make up the first act, showcase West’s strengths as a playwright: she places nuanced characters in pressing circumstances until their already fraught relationships unravel. But in the final two scenes, set in an increasingly lawless, misogynistic America, her priorities shift, and the effort to teach a certain cautionary lesson about nascent American fascism leaves little room for the sort of idiosyncratic character development that makes the first act so compelling. The locales she chooses—a prison cell in 2037, a southwest hideout in 2067—have the feel of stock Hollywood sci-fi dystopia, as does the action that takes place there. And with so little time to build these alternate worlds, West resorts to increasingly broad strokes to hold things together, climaxing in a series of shoot-outs that teeter dangerously close to old west melodrama.
Still, the urgency of West’s disturbing vision is affecting, especially in director Elly Green’s passionate, streamlined production, which features some of the most convincing performances I’ve seen on a Jackalope stage. If it falters in the finish, it’s still a hell of a journey. v