Eric LaRue

at A Red Orchid Theatre

It’s difficult to believe that boyish, unfailingly genial playwright Brett Neveu has ever harbored a dark thought. Rarely without a buoyant grin, kind word, or cheap joke, he spent his first few years in Chicago mounting intentionally awful puppet shows, as if all he wanted from life was a belly laugh.

But like many of his seemingly placid characters, Neveu somehow understands nearly unspeakable agony—and can dramatize it with power and accuracy. He hinted at the depths he would eventually plumb way back in his puppeteer days; and in his first real play in Chicago, the 1995 Work Related, he offered 11 monologues chronicling the soul-destroying ennui of corporate dronehood. Clearly Neveu was a playwright worth watching.

Seven years later it seems the entire off-Loop theater world is watching. This year Neveu has had three plays produced by three different companies—a feat I can’t recall any other local playwright achieving—and a fourth is scheduled at another theater next spring.

Unlike most successful playwrights in town, Neveu doesn’t make things easy for the audience. You won’t find life-affirming lessons or sops to current “right thinking” in his unsparing takes on middle-class America. You won’t know where your sympathies should lie in every scene. Instead worlds are torn asunder and people plunged into morally uncharitable territory—although his characters often proceed through their banal routines as if nothing has happened. Sometimes the tumult results from a tiny tear in the fabric of everyday life: in Eagle Hills, Eagle Ridge, Eagle Landing, a nondescript executive realizes his world is bounded by tract homes and golf vacations and flings himself into a life of near savagery. Other times Neveu’s characters confront a national crisis: in Empty, two middle-aged couples try to make sense of their lives after the September 11 attacks.

Now in Eric LaRue—the most harrowing and exhilarating of Neveu’s plays to date, brought to vivid life by director Ann Filmer in this A Red Orchid production—he addresses a trauma at once familiar and unimaginable. The play focuses on Janice LaRue, whose teenage son, Eric, took a shotgun and pistol to school one day and murdered three of his classmates. Then he came home and watched television. The action takes place well after the incident occurred; Eric has been tried and convicted and has served the first month of his sentence. But for his mother, who’s desperately protective of her only child, it’s as though the shooting took place yesterday. Emotionally paralyzed, she says several times that she wants to know “what it is I’m supposed to feel.” She hasn’t even managed to visit her son in prison yet, for reasons she can’t—or won’t—articulate.

In the first act Janice turns to her pastor and her husband to help make sense of the tragedy, but neither has the courage or the generosity to reach her. In two meticulously scripted scenes, Janice is alone with each man. Stranded in Pastor Calhan’s cramped, institutional office, she finds that he flounders when confronted by the enormity of her crisis and her inability to speak about it—”I’m sad” is about all she can say. He repeatedly tries to shepherd her down “appropriate” psychological paths, including a meeting with the mothers of her son’s victims. But his effort to initiate some sort of healing may spring from selfish motives: the pastor at a church where one of the mothers belongs—and to which Janice’s husband, the boy’s father, has defected—is also planning to arrange a meeting of the women. Calhan’s zeal may come from his need to be seen as the town savior.

In the second scene Janice is at home with her husband, Ron, as she packs some of Eric’s clothes into storage boxes. Like Calhan, Ron seems genuinely concerned for Janice but offers religious instruction instead of empathy. “Let Jesus into your heart,” he tells her a good dozen times, promising “immediate peace.” Ron’s faith is based on a recent event: he prayed that a man playing loud music in a restaurant would quit—and the man left. “Through trial, you achieve grace,” he concludes. Ron’s platitudes incite Janice to such fury that she attacks him viciously at the end of the scene.

It’s an ingeniously crafted first act, with tension building incrementally. Like Pinter, Neveu bases his dramatic arc on seemingly ordinary, repetitious conversation, never indicating his characters’ emotional states in stage directions or suggesting their motives in the dialogue. Janice, Calhan, and Ron spend most of the first act talking about nothing—and in this production it too often feels that way. Neither Will Clinger as Calhan nor Douglas Vickers as Ron finds enough behind his words to drive the scene forward; they hardly progress beyond a well-meaning ease. They repeat their advice to Janice without changing tactics, though people who state their case ten times tend to do so in differing ways or with varying degrees of urgency. The act lacks stakes—it’s especially hard to believe that the father of a teenage murderer would be so complacent—leaving Kate Buddeke as Janice with little to respond to: Clinger’s and Vickers’s responses aren’t enough to drive her to violence.

Everything changes, however, when the second act begins. The lights come up on Janice, Calhan, and two of the murdered boys’ mothers, Jill and Stephanie, sitting in Calhan’s office. Making an inspired choice, Filmer opens the scene with a long silence, as all four characters sit and stare anywhere but at one another, the air as thick and heavy as cement. These are terrible, hysterical, interminable minutes that finally bring the weight of the play’s tragedy to the stage.

When the characters do start talking, the scene remains excruciatingly uncomfortable: the women struggle to find some way to relate to one another while Calhan’s anxieties go through the roof, pushing him to micromanage the situation. When Janice attempts an apology, he objects because “apologies do not create discussions. They end them.” He insists they talk only about what’s next in their lives, not about the tragedy. Neveu leaves one chair empty throughout the scene, waiting for the third murdered boy’s mother; Calhan insists the women not talk in depth so that she can easily catch up when she arrives. With so much stifling them, the women are particularly brutal when they do finally erupt.

In this scene Filmer makes it feel as though there’s no oxygen left in the room. Whatever Clinger’s weaknesses in the first act, here he finds Calhan’s every level. And with riveting, carefully nuanced performances by Jen Engstrom as Jill and Claudia Garrison as Stephanie, Buddeke finally has what she needs to bring Janice to heartbreaking life. By the time the scene ends, all four participants are shattered and it seems Neveu couldn’t possibly build the play’s intensity any further.

Then he throws a knockout punch. In the next scene Eric appears—baby-faced, shackled, in an orange jumpsuit—sitting across from his mother in a prison visiting room. Trying to find something to say, he urges her to tell everyone he realizes he did an awful thing. Janice can’t bear to hear this—and eventually his repeated self-recriminations push her to admit her true feelings about her son’s crime: she’s been so desperate to understand what she’s “supposed to feel” because what she does feel is monstrous. And although she imagines her admission will comfort her son, it elicits such horror that he unconsciously writhes against his shackles.

It’s no surprise that veteran Buddeke gives her half of this demanding scene everything it needs. The surprise is 17-year-old Jarrett Sleeper, who’s never acted outside of school productions but who turns in a performance every bit as powerful as Buddeke’s. Apparently coached to put all his faith in Neveu’s words, he conveys enormous passion through the simplest statements. “It’s very bad in here,” he calmly intones, and every terrifying prison story you’ve ever heard comes to mind. Near the end of the scene, when he finally falls apart, his dissolution is instantaneous and complete—and perhaps even more astonishing, he pulls himself right back together, unwilling to let his mother see him in such a state. To sit backstage for 90 minutes and then take command of such a difficult scene would be an astonishing feat for an actor of any age.

Eric LaRue proves Neveu to be one of the most important playwrights in town, taking audiences to our most frightening psychic recesses. Some have branded Neveu a nihilist in this and other plays, presenting bleak problems and offering no solutions. But Neveu is not doing social work or policy analysis. He’s depicting human crises for which no solutions exist, as great dramatists have done since Sophocles. In the face of such trauma, Neveu suggests, our only option is to suffer without any assurance of redemption—and bearing witness to such suffering is the reason we created theater in the first place.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.