Thunder Road Ensemble

at Live Bait Theater

To the Thunder Road Ensemble: Please do not read this review. You have achieved nothing short of a miracle in turning David Rabe’s 1974 three-act dinosaur, In the Boom Boom Room, into a soaring evening of theater. The delicate balance of satire, lyricism, and pathos you’ve established mustn’t be upset by listening to the ravings of a critic. So stop reading right now. This means you.

For everyone else out there who can’t imagine a production of In the Boom Boom Room having anything of importance to say to a contemporary audience, Thunder Road will show you something you never thought possible. On the page Boom Boom Room seems a tedious exploration of a well-worn theme: the bright-eyed, good-hearted dreamer sucked dry and left broken by an abusive world (I confess I’ve never been able to finish the script, seeing in it only faux urban lowlifes, condescending guilty-male feminism, and out-of-nowhere gritty poetic monologues). Rabe’s play centers on Chrissy, an unimaginably naive and optimistic go-go dancer who longs to leave Philadelphia and make it as a legitimate dancer in New York. Every man in Chrissy’s life uses her for his own perverse pleasure, from her sexually abusive father to her disturbingly devoted courtier Eric to her insensitive husband Al, yet she can’t even entertain the notion that some men might be genuinely bad.

Sounds like an episode of Geraldo you’d flip past, no? But luckily director Daniel Taube’s inspired reading takes the script far beyond the realm of daytime television. Rather than polarizing the drama into two camps, the abusers and the victims, he begins with the premise that everyone is innocent. The lecherous bar patrons, the virulently racist drifter Al, his horrifyingly misogynist sidekick Ralphie, and even the child molester Harold are presented as likable people capable of great tenderness and vulnerability. The production does not excuse or make light of their hateful behavior, but neither does it dismiss the characters as monsters–rather they work their way into our hearts, where their darker sides fester. They tap into our psyches, reminding us that hatred and violence are not alien to anyone.

Taube’s approach turns what could have been a stock piece of liberal finger pointing into an emotionally challenging evening of a sort that’s desperately needed in an era when artists cower before the unthinking zealots of political correctness. So much work that passes as liberating or revisionist today simply supplants one set of distasteful lies with another, seemingly more palatable set. Suddenly everyone with AIDS is a courageous hero, for example, striving valiantly against injustice on every front. Of course we must fight the notion that people with AIDS are depraved moral criminals, but to counter such vitriol with sentimental heroics not only denies reality but creates a cultural ideal that’s nearly impossible for any individual to live up to. In trying to give people with AIDS back some of their self-esteem, the PC pundits may achieve just the opposite.

A similar dynamic often pervades discussions of violence against women: women are faultless victims, and men predatory brutes. Such dichotomies are nowhere evident in Thunder Road’s production, for that would let the audience off too easily. Instead these characters remain pathetic and human even in their most horrifying moments–Ralphie asking Al for “seconds” after he screws Chrissy, or Al telling Chrissy, “It just gets old when it’s with the same woman.” We can see ourselves, however disturbingly, in their eyes. Like David Mamet in his perennially misunderstood drama Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Rabe shows that a larger system of cultural values has left everyone psychically wounded. Labeling individuals innocent or guilty misses the point.

Taube’s vision is supported by an extraordinarily gifted cast willing and able to meet the enormous emotional challenges of the script. Each of the 11 actors expertly handles the kitchen-sink poetry, suffusing Rabe’s highly imagistic language with deep emotional conviction. As a result the production never settles into naturalism, where it would die a quick and self-indulgent death, but floats in a lyrical space rich with psychological resonance.

Deborah King’s virtuoso performance as Chrissy sends an already strong production into the stratosphere. King acknowledges the stock nature of Chrissy’s character–she even gives her the stereotypical dumb-blond accent reminiscent of Ellen Greene in Little Shop of Horrors (in fact, Greene played Chrissy in Boom Boom Room’s first off-Broadway production). But she also gives Chrissy, who strives to pull herself out of the mire, enormous dignity and a strong moral fiber, and without slipping into sentimentality or bathos. King’s strength onstage is awesome.

A palpable urgency pervades all the performances, as if this group were speaking from the depths of their souls. Certainly the production has its weaknesses–Randy Jackson’s monochromatic cardboard-cutout set is rather inflexible, and Taube has a penchant for positioning his actors so far downstage that they’re invisible to anyone beyond the second row of the audience–but such lapses hardly detract from the show’s overall power. Unlike so many smaller theater companies in Chicago, Thunder Road is an ensemble with something to say. And fortunately for us they’ve developed an expressive theatrical language in which to say it.