Credit: Claire Demos

David Rabe has spent a lifetime honing his craft. And it shows in Cosmologies, a remarkably well-written play receiving its midwest premiere at the Gift Theatre (which counts him as an ensemble member). Rabe first made his name in the 1970s writing savage, dark comedies about his experiences in Vietnam (Streamers, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, and Sticks and Bones, which won him a Tony) and later in the cocaine-addled world of Hollywood in the 1980s (Hurly-Burly).

As in his earlier plays, Rabe spends a lot of stage time in Cosmologies messing with the audience’s mind, defying expectations with lots of sudden, unexpected twists and rambling poetic-philosophical discussions. The story begins simply enough, with a pair of earnest, nerdy high school students who decide to flee to Chicago, but it all goes off the rails when the protagonist, an honors student named Eric, is stabbed by a sadistic pimp and experiences what is either a long, two-act hallucination or an abduction by aliens.

The result is a wild, fever dream of a play that keeps the audience guessing, and then, in the end, refuses to wrap things up neatly. This sounds like a mess, but Rabe somehow pulls it off. Or, I should say Rabe and the folks at Gift Theatre, under the direction of Michael Patrick Thornton, pull it off. Because this is the kind of play only an accomplished playwright in full control of his craft and a tight ensemble in full control of their instruments could make work. The production is full of fine performances, as we have come to expect from the Gift, led by Kenny Mihlfried as the Alice-like Eric, struggling to find his way out of Wonderland.   v