A Guide for the Perplexed
A Guide for the Perplexed Credit: Liz Lauren

A Guide for the Perplexed Victory Gardens Theater

Joel Drake Johnson’s appealing new drama, A Guide for the Perplexed, takes place primarily in the cozy den of a comfortable Glencoe home, where fiftysomething paterfamilias Phillip has surrounded himself with various means of soothing escape: a couch that unfolds into a bed so he doesn’t have to sleep with his wife, a radio tuned to a relaxing classical music station, a DVD player loaded with West Side Story, piles of sexy, simpleminded paperback novels, and an aquarium populated with tropical fish.

The fish are the perfect pets for obsessive-compulsive Phillip. They must be fed in a very precise manner, only a few pinches of food at a certain time each day, or they’ll overeat and explode with a loud pop. But as long as the dietary rules are followed and their habitat is kept clean, they’ll remain the picture of a placid and well-ordered existence—a calming alternative to the chaos of Phillip’s family life.

Phillip is living under a cloud, suspected of having embezzled money from work. Nothing has been proven, and he didn’t go to jail, but he’s lost his job. And his wife, Sheila, and their teenage son, Andrew, are pretty sure he’s guilty. Hence the move out of the bedroom and into the den. Now he plays the perfect househusband, buying the groceries, doing the cleaning, and trying to keep track of rebellious Andrew.

That last task isn’t so easy. Unlike the critters swimming around in Phillip’s aquarium, Andrew is a fish out of water—a gay near-genius who can rattle off long passages from The Guide for the Perplexed, the three-volume treatise in which 12th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides laid out his vision of the universe and the divine. Phillip and Sheila are proud of Andrew’s academic prowess but exasperated by his behavior. His homosexuality and perfect SAT scores have made him a prime target for bullying at school, he suffers from depression and entertains thoughts of suicide—and yet, rather than share his problems with his parents, he cuts class and acts out in bratty, smart-alecky ways, provoking heated arguments with Phillip.

Into these troubled waters swims an outsider: Sheila’s brother Doug, a scruffy ex-con just released from prison after serving five years for assault. From the moment we meet him—using the pay phone at the Lincoln Avenue no-tell motel where he initially holes up—we know Doug is a good man with a dangerous streak, prone to violence when he’s drunk or high and prey to panic attacks when he’s sober. Though Sheila hasn’t seen him in years, she invites him to stay with her family. He can sleep in the den, which for all its pleasant appointments reminds him of his cell.

And there you have the setup for Johnson’s play: three men, different in many ways but nearly identical in others, trying to figure out how to coexist in their domestic fish tank. All three battle depression and have enormous difficulty expressing their emotions. Andrew is alienated from the father he’s sure is a criminal and yet fascinated by Doug, the certified felon who attempted to kill himself in jail. Doug likes Andrew but, perpetually exhausted after five years without a good night’s sleep, has no desire to become a surrogate parent. And Phillip—for whom Doug’s presence is a reminder that he’s barely escaped incarceration himself—dreads having to leave his sanctuary to his brother-in-law, since that means having to return to his wife’s bed and face her silent recrimination.

The situation is potentially explosive—and potentially hackneyed. But Johnson has a knack for avoiding cliches. His dialogue is crisp, smart, and compassionate, his scenes well-crafted, his use of symbolism deft. His characters are offbeat without being stereotypically quirky. A Guide for the Perplexed is an upbeat play—you might even call it a feel-good story—but it’s also unpredictable.

The only major flaw is that the two female characters are merely functional. Away from home on a business trip, Sheila appears occasionally to speak on the phone, cuing the male characters to take the next step in their emotional development. The other woman is Betty, who wrote Doug letters while he was in jail and has fallen in love with him without ever having seen him. Now that he’s been released, she drives in all the way from Cincinnati to shower him with gifts and affection. Her purpose in the play is to show that Doug isn’t ready for a normal relationship. Though the one scene between Betty and Doug is moving and suspenseful, it’s only a dramatic detour in a drama whose heart and soul lie in the interaction among Doug, Phillip, and Andrew.

Director Sandy Shinner has assembled a superbly sensitive cast for this world premiere. Steppenwolf members Kevin Anderson and Francis Guinan are a compelling odd couple as Doug and Phillip—the working-class roughneck and the white-collar fussbudget, both struggling with pent-up rage and anxiety. Bubba Weiler is credible as Andrew, the superintelligent wiseass, capable of cruelty and stupidity. And as Sheila and Betty, Meg Thalken and Cynthia Baker invest their characters with a complexity that justifies their presence.

The detailed design also serves the play well. Todd Hensley’s lighting delicately charts the healing passage of time. Jeffrey Bauer’s turntable set—depicting by turns the motel, the den, and the patio outside the den, looking out on a lush, landscaped lawn—reinforces the story’s dramatic arc. Carol Blanchard’s costumes are perfectly chosen to suit the characters. And Andre Pluess’s sound design is integral, ranging from passages of Gershwinesque incidental music to the weirdly comical yet disturbing popping noise of exploding fish.