Chicago Theatre Company
“Pill Hill,” aka Calumet Heights, is located just east of Stony Island, tucked snugly between 90th and 93rd on Chicago’s southeast side. Once the province of wealthy white physicians–hence the nickname–this tiny but luxurious neighborhood was in the 60s and 70s a symbol to blacks of the affluence to which they could aspire. These aspirations are the topic of conversation for the six buddies who gather for beer and cards in the humble basement flat of one of their number in Samuel L. Kelley’s Pill Hill.
It’s 1973, and Charlie, a 20-year veteran of the steel mills, has set his goals no higher than a promotion to machine operator. But Eddie has recently left his job at the mill and attends school full-time. Al, whose growing family requires him to keep his mill job, goes to night school, and Tony sells encyclopedias on the side. Scott was recently hired at the mill, following the loss of his football scholarship and consequent dismissal from college. Joe, their optimistic host, plans to leave his mill job just as soon as he completes the payments on his car.
Five years later, Charlie has been passed over for the promotion but swallows his disappointment and concentrates on maintaining his perfect attendance record. Eddie has passed the bar, and Al is a real estate agent. Scott now has a job with the CTA, and Joe still insists he’s only “a few paychecks” away from his last mill shift. He’s been educating himself by buying an encylopedia and a Great Books set from Tony, who’s purveyed his talent for selling into a $30,000-a-year income–big money in 1978. But it’s obvious to everyone that his employers see him as a pipeline to the black dollar.
By 1983, Eddie is similarly exploiting his own people: his debut case at a prestigious corporation requires him to oppose the very people he once called his peers. Al’s business is doing fine, but he can’t forget the poverty and uncertainty of his first year, living on a smile and a shoeshine, when his suit and briefcase were no more protection from scorn and humiliation than Charlie’s Cadillac was from Mississippi bigotry 20 years earlier. With virtually no education, Tony is now engaged to a university professor and is in the market for a house in–you guessed it–Pill Hill. Scott is a glamorous “music promoter” who has trouble with his short-term memory and gets beeped to make deliveries at odd times. But worst off is Joe: he’s squabbled with his supervisor once too often and is now jobless, penniless, and soon to be homeless, sustained only by cheap liquor, empty phrases, and the occasional handout from Charlie, now retired from the mill with a full pension.
At its most basic, Pill Hill is an allegory of economic progress: each man’s story is meant to represent a different path in pursuit of the American dream. But Kelley has buried his sermons so deeply in the play’s natural idioms that the script never seems preachy. Under the expert direction of Douglas Alan-Mann, the Chicago Theatre Company cast take what could have been little more than an assemblage of sociological types and transform them into complex, recognizable personalities. And theirs may be the most sensitive ensemble work this season. When one character has the focus, the others don’t wait passively for their own lines–a surprisingly common flaw–but continue to connect with one another, keeping the psychological dynamic going.
David Barr as the boisterous Joe and Willie B. Goodson as the fatherly Charlie give durable, nicely detailed performances. Ray Anthony Thompson as Al turns in a subtle portrait of the eternal runner-up, while Craig Derrick makes an ingenuously amoral Tony and Evan Lionel an equally innocent Scott. As Eddie, the man with the most choices and the play’s “spokesman,” Adrian Lamonte Byrd sometimes staggers under his burden but, with the support of the others, never falls. Joel Klaff’s costume design pinpoints the play’s chronological jumps, and Patrick Kerwin’s reproduction of Joe’s basement apartment likewise indicates at a glance that character’s financial status. Corbiere Boynes’s sound design sits so delicately under the dialogue that we’re barely aware of its presence. CTC has forged a reputation for superbly crafted theater, and Pill Hill is no exception.
Galileo Theatre Company
at the Organic Theater Company Greenhouse, South Hall
Kay Kudukis’s Dark Matter is a play with so much warmth and humor you could take it anywhere–summer stock, dinner theater, community theaters, drama clubs, you name it. Though it shares some qualities with 50s-style domestic farce, its comedy is firmly rooted in universal human values. Even the obligatory act-three drunk scene is given a new twist.
Erikka Kenton is an attractive but klutzy young writer who’s recently kicked alcohol and written what promises to be a best-seller about the process. Her roommate, Alex, is a psychotherapist with a penchant for nonstop jokes and a lover to whom he is faithfully unfaithful. Their neighbor, Tania, is a retired crystal gazer now living in an apartment full of paranormal phenomena and a cat that may be more than he appears.
Everything is more than it appears when Erikka attempts to find romance in the land of the sober with a charming but caddish fellow named Rick, Alex comes to realize that therapy begins at home, and Tania is forced to recognize the blind spot in her own clairvoyance. Their progress is told in dialogue that sparkles with wit. There are also plenty of old-fashioned one-two gags, mostly supplied by the bickering Alex and Tania (“Are you trying to say I’m spiritually void?” he asks indignantly, to which she snaps, “And prohibited in most states!”). There’s even a one-liner or two–asked how she’s holding up, Erikka replies, “Oh, like a hairdo in a convertible.”
Director Michelle Sterling has assembled a seasoned cast whose timing and inflection have been honed to diamond-sharp keenness and brilliance–the scene in which Erikka describes her first date with Rick is alone worth the price of admission. Move over I Hate Hamlet–for that matter, move over Odd Couple. It doesn’t take a fortune-teller to see that Dark Matter is destined to become part of the comedy repertoire.