Where We're Born
Where We're Born Credit: Michael Brosilow

Steppenwolf Theatre Company is all about incubation these days. They’ve already got the First Look Repertory of New Work, which develops and stages promising scripts, and Garage Rep to showcase the wares of smaller local theater companies. Now there’s Next Up, a collaboration with Northwestern University aimed at mentoring newly minted MFA directors and designers. The program’s first fruit, a batch of three productions, is being presented in rotating repertory at the Steppenwolf Garage.

The playbill touts Next Up’s inaugural group of three directors and four designers as “the next generation of theater artists.” That phrase made me think of Treplev, the aspiring young playwright in Anton Chekhov’s The Sea Gull, who longs to supplant the hidebound and conventional theater of his day with “new forms.” No similar drive seems to animate the Next Up crew. Judging from the offerings on display here, they’re more interested in the good old-fashioned naturalist pursuit of truthfully rendered human behavior.

The least orthodox of the plays—at least on the page—is Venus, Suzan-Lori Parks’s 1996 drama about Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus. A Khoikhoi woman from southern Africa, Baartman became a star attraction of freak shows in London and Paris in the early 19th century. Her prodigious butt attracted the prurient interest of gawkers—and, later, scientists, who dissected her after she died in 1815.

Parks gives this tale of racial, sexual, and medical exploitation a stylized, circuslike telling. Her script incorporates a playful chorus and master of ceremonies who quote archival sources such as Baartman’s strangely lascivious autopsy report.

But director Jess McLeod downplays the carnival atmosphere, avoiding Grand Guignol flourishes and reining in the performances. Her restraint helps lighten Parks’s heavy-handed bits (the scene, for example, involving a group of masturbating anatomists) and keeps the focus on Baartman, whose humanity might otherwise be buried in symbolism. Mildred Marie Langford plays the lead with an affecting vulnerability, especially in tender scenes with a doctor whom Baartman hopes to marry.

A muted quality also suffuses Jaclynn Jutting’s staging of Animals Out of Paper by Rajiv Joseph. But this time it reflects the spirit of the play—a comedy in a minor key.

Ilana is a sour origami artist who hasn’t left her paper-strewn studio in the two months since her husband left her and her three-legged dog ran away. But then she meets Andy, a paper-folding high-school calculus teacher with a sweet disposition and a notebook in which he literally counts his blessings. Inasmuch as he’s been counting since he was 12, he’s racked up nearly 8,000 blessings, ranging from “my health” to “I bought a really excellent rake.” Into Ilana’s life along with Andy comes Suresh, a teenage origami prodigy who uses hip-hop bravado to compensate for a crappy home life and the usual adolescent confusion.

It’s instantly apparent that these two will revive Ilana. But the play isn’t all cuddles and uplift. A persistent sense of loss shades the undertaking like a countermelody. Just as the first fold destroys the perfection of a crisp sheet of paper, so our own transformations come with a cost. “Folds,” Ilana says, “leave scars.”

Jutting’s production features sophisticated comic timing and an impressive menagerie of paper animals (folded by Sunmi Kang). But the most striking thing about it is the cast’s subtle way of evoking their characters’ scars. Derek Hasenstab, in particular, gives Andy’s blessing count the aura of a defense against some unnamed pain.

By far the strongest of the three shows is Brad Akin’s blistering production of Where We’re Born.

The play is set in a small, working-class town in western Massachusetts. College freshman Lilly Marino grew up here, but her intelligence marked her early on as just passing through on her way to better things. Now she’s back, visiting her protective older cousin, Tony, who divides his time between working and getting high.

With an unreliable mother and an absent father, Lily was raised by Tony, and he and his girlfriend, Franky, constitute her only real family. But Lilly blows that connection to smithereens when she starts a sexual relationship with Franky. Lucy Thurber’s script can get a little overheated at times, but her depiction of home as a minefield and growing up as a process of betraying those who love you is gripping.

So is Akin’s staging, in which the callow, somewhat exasperating intensity of Caroline Neff’s Lily is offset by the sadness, resentment, and desperation of the people she’s leaving behind. As Tony, Shane Kenyon conveys an easygoing stasis that erupts in animal rage when he realizes he’s been betrayed. Most moving of all is Audrey Francis’s Franky, who seems always to be choking back tears of disappointment and fury.

Akin’s production is visceral, volatile, violent—a throwback to the sort of work that earned Steppenwolf a reputation more than 30 years ago. If this is the future, it looks a lot like the past.