Pot Mom, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The damage television does to American theater every year is incalculable. When the idiot box isn’t stealing audiences, shrinking imaginations, and shortening attention spans, it’s robbing us of talented actors. And TV may be good for the bank account, but it’s bad for an actor’s soul. Which may explain why Laurie Metcalf–back on the Steppenwolf stage for the first time since Libra, produced four years ago–is playing Roseanne’s sister Jackie, or rather the dysfunctional pothead Jackie might have become. This from the actress resourceful enough to play two roles in Libra: Lee Harvey Oswald’s mom and the guy who taught Oswald how to shoot.

I wouldn’t have been so disappointed if Justin Tanner’s Pot Mom had been as well written as Roseanne, but it’s not. The elements are here for a mildly daring sitcom: a likable but neurotic main character, her kooky best-friend neighbor, and a sick extended family (one pretty daughter, one nerdy daughter, a slacker son, and an outrageous live-in boyfriend). But Tanner gets lost in a number of story lines–Mom goes back to work, her crazy friend gets the hots for her son, the nerdy sister tries to break into the horsey set at school–and none of the moments ever grows into a full-blown story. Tanner has lots of fun violating TV conventions, tackling taboo topics (intergenerational sex, recreational drugs, the class struggle), but never produces anything daring or interesting.

Director Wilson Milam does what he can with a script that’s too joke driven to be serious drama but not funny enough for prime time. Pot Mom does contain one wonderful performance, however: Tom Irwin is inspired as Metcalf’s trash-talking, hard-toking, truck-driving boyfriend. As for the play’s star–well, Metcalf is likable enough as a woman always two hits short of a full bowl, but her work is so bland it’s hard not to be a little disappointed. And very bored.

–Jack Helbig