To paraphrase Martha and the Vandellas, summer’s here and the time is right for sitting in the seats. Chicago’s conventional theater season may still (roughly) follow the September-to-June academic calendar, but festivals have burgeoned—along with outdoor Shakespeare—to fill up the warm-weather down period. For example: A physical theater festival called Physical ran here earlier this month, as did the Drekfest rotten-play competition. The three-day Abbie Hoffman Died for Our Sins performance marathon begins this Friday. Next comes A Jangleheart Circus, promising 111 improv and sketch comedy acts. And the Chicago Fringe Festival dances summer out with 48 shows, starting Labor Day weekend.
In that context Steppenwolf Theatre’s First Look Repertory comes off as a modest affair. This year’s edition—the ninth annual—comprises just two readings and a trio of “developmental productions” presenting new plays by younger writers. But the event has been discerningly curated by Aaron Carter and Greta Honold, and the three staged shows offer just under five hours of worthwhile summer sitting.
Sad to say, the weakest entry is by the hometown favorite, Tanya Saracho. Though Mexican by birth, Texan by adolescence, and Bostonian by university, Saracho cofounded Teatro Luna in Chicago 14 years ago and did her artistic due diligence among us. Now she writes for Girls and Looking, both on HBO.
The techniques she’s absorbed from those gigs are very much in evidence in her First Look contribution, Hushabye. Problem is, they tend to work against the integrity of the piece as theater.
Hushabye concerns Erika, the troubled, twenty-something daughter of African-American parents who made a fortune in Chicago real estate and died in a car accident Erika apparently caused. The trauma led to a stay in a psych ward, after which Erika boarded for a while with her married older sister, Cynthia. Now, as the play begins, Erika’s been deemed well enough to move into her own loft apartment in a converted industrial building in Pilsen. As you might expect, she’s got a few issues still to deal with.
Saracho frames Erika’s story in the way one might frame, oh, say, a pilot for an HBO series, piling on the potential narrative lines. First off is her relationship with Jackson the landlord, a hipsterish white guy who eats quinoa and plays banjo in his underwear. Then there’s her inappropriate love affair with an older man, her fondness for pharmaceuticals, Cynthia’s contested plan to open a boutique hotel at Belmont and Western, and hints of malfeasance by Cynthia’s husband, Brian, who got control of the family business when Dad died. And if that isn’t enough, Erika’s got a sassy gay best friend in her cousin Terrence—definitely good for heart-to-hearts over sausage pancake bites from Dunkin’ Donuts.
Saracho offers a sort of stop-gap sense of closure along with her buoyant, efficient dialogue. But it’s hard to escape the impression that most of her plot points are structured to be teased out and bulked up across a considerably longer arc than 100 minutes can encompass. That surfaces have yet to be scratched, natures to be plumbed, secrets to be divulged, shit to hit the fan.
I hope Saracho takes her current cast with her if Hushabye the series goes to cable. Under Yasen Peyankov‘s direction, they all prove they deserve it—especially McKenzie Chinn and Shane Kenyon, who are both sweet with the right pinch of Mrs. Dash as Erika and Jackson.
All three First Look productions are startlingly well realized, in fact, even if you disregard the “developmental” caveat. None more so than Margot Bordelon’s staging of Okay, Bye, a 70-minute two-hander by Joshua Conkel, about former schoolmates—relentlessly perky Jenny and just as relentlessly hangdog Meg—who encounter each other at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and find themselves at Jenny’s apartment with a plastic bottle of Jim Beam and “helium hood” suicide kit. The script is too pat at certain times and too uncertain at others, with an inscrutable coda that feels like it’s standing in for the ending Conkle hasn’t yet discovered. Still, it does the great service of giving Brenda Barrie and Lara Phillips the opportunity to kick ass with enormous delicacy. The two of them take what looks at first like a predictable dynamic between opposites and make it harrowingly vital.
Something similar happens in Daniella Topol’s mounting of Ironbound by Martyna Majok, the difference being that Majok supplies a more complete play with a more nuanced character, Darja, at its heart.
A Polish immigrant who lives in New Jersey and goes from youth to middle age, factory work to cleaning houses, and man to man to man in the time we spend with her, Darja follows a trajectory that basically conforms to the ugly economic realities of the last two decades. It’s her contradictory character, though, that makes the ride worthwhile. She keeps trying to be a tough cookie, coldly making terms and getting paid even when it comes to sex. But she can’t keep up the act. If she’s ironbound to anything it’s the sweet softness of her desire for love. Think of Darja as a kind of romance-infected Mother Courage: the eternal sucker, reborn every minute.
And Lusia Strus’s marvelous performance makes her compelling. Indeed, all the characters and performances in Ironbound operate in the shadow between what T.S. Eliot called the essence and the descent, which makes each one of them funny, dark, tender, and surprising—and marks Majok’s play as best of this little fest.