In a time when you can find anybody, disappearance is a powerful fantasy.
Last week I saw Steep Theatre’s production of The Few, Samuel D. Hunter’s recent play about a man who returns home after four years spent who knows where. Before that Jackalope premiered Calamity West’s The Rolling, in which a disgraced reporter goes into seclusion—physical and digital—while trying to sort out her life. I know that’s not a wide sampling, but the theme of somehow getting beyond the reach of all webs and every connection seems especially striking in light of Ike Holter‘s astonishing new piece of work on the subject, Sender.
Leonard Harris is the sort of guy who can pull off a nickname like “Lynx.” Holter’s character description calls him “magnetic and attractive.” His former lover Tess, on the other hand, calls him “motherfucker” when he materializes in her Chicago apartment 365 days (366, she corrects, since it’s past midnight) after having stolen off without a word, leaving everyone to believe that his bike, found abandoned on the shore, signified a drunken stumble into Lake Michigan.
Well, almost everyone. While Lynx’s other friends mourned as best they could in the absence of a body, the classically and aptly named Cassandra knew, as she says, “something else was up.” Married, pregnant, and earning serious money at a grown-up job, she’s become the inverse image of Lynx’s airy irresponsibility and is no longer subject to his mystique. Cassandra sees herself as having assumed leadership of the group that once gathered around Lynx. As having shepherded them through their trauma. She wants him gone again, this time for good.
Most of all she wants to keep him as far as possible from her husband, Jordan, who idolized Lynx with a fervor that rivaled Tess’s.
Of course, Cassandra fails in that regard. And once Jordan sees Lynx, matters get serious. The Peter Pan of Logan Square (or Humboldt Park, maybe—some locus of hipsterism) hasn’t dropped his fantasy of escape. Lynx isn’t back to resume his life but to lure others out of theirs. It’s a tempting offer. Tess is a dog walker (“I have a degree in poetry and a minor in art, the only thing I can do is walk dogs”), Jordan works for Groupon, and the baby in Cassandra’s womb has made reality entirely too real. Beer was good once. Music was fun. Sex was amazing. It might be nice to fuck up completely, once and for all, and drop off the grid.
A big part of the genius of Sender is the breakneck momentum embedded in Holter’s script and carried through by Shade Murray’s canny 90-minute staging for A Red Orchid Theatre. Holter, the Chicago-based wunderkind best known for his Stonewall-riot drama Hit the Wall, is fearless here. He lets his characters spin out like wet clay on a lopsided potter’s wheel, knowing there’s every possibility they’ll end up, well, hitting the wall. Yet, for all its centrifugal force, the play never gives the impression of outrunning its author’s capacities. Holter’s comic sense is too strong for that, endlessly and hilariously asserting itself. More so is his poetic sense. Sender treads an interesting, exhilarating line between everyday hipster patois (“I’m just saying”) and something more ugly/exalted (“Lynx, why did you screw everything the fuck up? Everything the fuck up. Everything the fuck up, everything the fuck up, Leonard Harris . . . “). Like the name Cassandra, Holter’s language occasionally touches the mythic.
And the cast is pretty much perfect for its demands. Steve Haggard’s Lynx exudes the slimy, smooth, uncertain confidence of a man who used to be celebrated for his cool recklessness but aged out of his golden god phase and is now just plain lost. It’s fascinating to watch him wield the one power he’s got left: his ability to play on the nostalgia and affection of the people he used to exploit. Mary Williamson and Steven Wilson are depressingly believable as the exploitees, Tess and Jordan. Wilson, in particular, combines the softness of the perpetual second fiddle with something far more desperate. McKenzie Chinn, meanwhile, is positively Delphic as Cassandra—taking no shit, unshakeable in her sense that she knows what things cost when she’s mistaken about the currency. v