Cold Basement Dramatics' Heat Wave Credit: Anna Sodziak

Steppenwolf Theatre’s robust Garage Rep, in which the mighty Lincoln Park institution hands over its handsome 80-seat Garage Theatre—as well as production and publicity teams—to three substantially less-than-mighty local companies for nine weeks, has traditionally been something of a free-for-all. It’s never mattered whether the shows had anything to do with one another, hewed to any particular aesthetic, or offended anyone’s tastes. If a chosen company wanted to try it out, it was in.

The rules haven’t changed for the festival’s sixth annual incarnation. As is typical of Garage Rep, all the productions run efficiently and energetically. Just about everything feels expansive—and thus necessarily a bit shaky, a testament to these artists’ courageous unwillingness to play it safe in such a high-profile gig. As with the venerable Rhinoceros Theater Festival, risk taking is part and parcel with Garage Rep.

By happenstance, this year’s offerings are thematically linked, all centrally concerned with the quest for social justice. And for all the inventive staging and enterprising theatrics, things fall short when it comes to effective sociopolitical engagement.

Least engaged is Red Tape Theatre’s opaque The Walk Across America for Mother Earth, Taylor Mac’s picaresque 2011 camp pageant about an unruly band of semicommitted lefty radicals marching from D.C. to a former U.S. nuclear test site in Nevada, all to protest just about any hot-button issue stuck in anyone’s craw. As is typical of Mac’s work, the piece swirls and eddies through a fantastical and ridiculous imaginary landscape, its worldview as idealistic as it is cynical. As wide-eyed Kelly, a maybe-gay refugee from suburban “real America” realizes near the end of the journey, he’s trying to change the world for a band of people he can’t stand.

Red Tape’s aptly messy production, directed by Bonnie Metzgar and Eric Hoff, is visually vibrant and thematically incoherent. The group can’t find a tone or point of view to elucidate Mac’s dizzying text. While isolated bits shine, muddiness dominates most of the show’s two-hour running time.

Pride Films and Plays’ stab at Topher Payne’s amusing but untenable dark comedy Angry Fags provides a bit more substance. It focuses on Bennett and Cooper, gay thirtysomething roommates who embark on a campaign of violence against antigay targets—from the lone basher to the well-funded religious institution—in an attempt to scare mainstream America into submission. It’s a hell of a premise, and director Derek Van Barham’s snappy production is always engaging. But Payne strays through a half dozen less volatile, sit-com-ready subplots before getting to the real action, only to let it spin into confused implausibility.

The show that delivers the most goods is Cold Basement Dramatics’ Heat Wave, a roving documentary about the systemic inequities that allowed Chicago’s deadly 1995 heat wave to kill primarily poor minorities. Based on Eric Klinenberg’s stunning 2002 book, Steven Simoncic’s adaptation takes on too many story lines (a few of which go nowhere) to develop any one to dramatic satisfaction, but director Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary’s sure-footed production keeps the book’s sobering truths in clear focus.