Life and Limb: part love story, part vicious Swiftian satire
Life and Limb: part love story, part vicious Swiftian satire Credit: Michael Brosilow

Now in its second year, Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Next Up repertory showcases productions staged by a few newly graduated directors and designers from Northwestern University’s MFA program. You may think of it as a cool-kids-only recital. Or a coming-out gala for theater-world debs. And you may say to yourself, Fine for them. They get to be mentored by high-functioning pros at an important American theater—and, maybe more useful in the short run, pick up a Steppenwolf credit for their resumes. But what’s in it for me?

Well, I think you’re being awfully harsh, friend, but your basic point is well taken. Unless you’re into the American Idol-esque romance of discovering tomorrow’s stars today, the allure of seeing shows by people who were in school just last month is limited.

Except that in Chicago we’re always seeing shows by people who were in school last month. This is the town where kids go to test their chops after leaving college, whether the college happens to be Northwestern or Podunk Community. And nobody regards the productions those kids put on as anything but professional, unless of course they stink. In a weird way, Next Up may actually devalue the work of its participants by framing that work as the outcome of a training program. In fact, the Next Up directors and designers are no different from hundreds of others who’ve enrolled in the ongoing training program that is Chicago—just, considering the Steppenwolf imprimatur, luckier.

So let’s treat the 2012 Next Up entries as nothing more nor less than three off-Loop shows conveniently located in a single theater:

Director Emily Campbell took on a unique formal challenge when she decided to stage Keith Reddin’s Life and Limb. Ever since its 1984 opening at South Coast Repertory, critics have been commenting on the schizoid nature of this play about poor Franklin Clagg, who goes off to fight the Korean War and comes back lacking both his right arm and his optimism. The thing is part love story, part vicious Swiftian satire, and part cracked, postmodern conflation of It’s a Wonderful Life and Dante’s Inferno.

Campbell seems most interested in the love story and makes something poignant of it. As played by Jürgen Hooper and winsome-but-fierce Grace Rex, the relationship between Franklin and his wife Effie somehow remains tender even as it’s sliding into depression, adultery, and death. Audrey Francis makes a nice comic foil for them in the role of Doina, a Romanian Ethel to Ellie’s Lucy.

But none of that solves the problem of the play. The satire, especially, comes across as a separate cosmos we visit whenever Reddin wants us to be appalled. That’s a shame not only because it fragments the show but because Chris Froseth is so deadpan scary playing the grotesque god of that cosmos, Franklin’s psychopathic boss Tod.

Emily Schwend’s South of Settling is stylistically pretty far removed from Life and Limb. The only new play in this year’s Next Up bunch, it’s a model of naturalism—and also a catchall for current popular tropes about Middle American life. There’s the seemingly well-adjusted middle-aged couple haunted by the loss of a child. The bullied gay teen. The single woman who, sensing her chances slipping away, latches onto a sweet, dim lug. (To be fair, that last one goes all the way back to A Streetcar Named Desire).

Schwend has a nice, often quietly comic way with dialogue. But her script is strangely inchoate; neither she nor director Adam Goldstein seems to have any compelling use for the tropes she’s piled up like so many Lego blocks. What they have instead is a cast full of exceptionally strong journeyman actors—Keith Kupferer and Janet Ulrich Brooks in particular. Getting Kupferer and Brooks to play the middle-aged couple is such an advantage for Goldstein and Schwend that it seems tantamount to cheating. The actors create texture, weight, subtext, and even the impression that those Lego blocks somehow go together.

Like South of Settling (and Life and Limb, too, for that matter), The Glass Menagerie is the product of youth. Tennessee Williams was 33 in 1944, when it premiered here in Chicago. But where Schwend’s youth has yielded a script that’s vague at its core, Williams’s drove him to a fierce specificity. In his enthusiasm, he even gave us a narrator, Tom, to make sure we know exactly what he wanted us to see in this “memory play” about the Wingfields, a family of painfully fragile souls trying to weather the Great Depression. The result is stunning in its heart-on-its-sleeve power.

Laley Lippard’s production reminded me why Glass Menagerie is a masterpiece, but sometimes in spite of itself. Lippard seems to have a surreal motif going on, in which physical reality is set at odds with the text. It consists mostly of little things: Tom talks of putting on a fake mustache when he’s already sporting a real one; his mother, Amanda, tries to slick down his “cowlick” when his hair is close-cropped; later, Amanda tries to stuff daughter Laura’s bodice to impress a gentleman caller, even though Leah Karpel’s Laura is already ample that way.

There’s an argument for such a conceit, given that we’re dealing with memory. The Tom we’re seeing, for instance, may not be the young one living at home with his mother and sister, but a buzz-cut, mustachioed older version who slips into the action as part of his reverie. That makes sense. But Lippard never gives a clear enough indication that that’s the case. What’s more, Kathy Scambiatterra’s performance as Amanda suggests anything but dreaminess. Faded southern belle though she is, Scambiatterra’s Amanda is also an extraordinarily tough cookie who isn’t living through her daughter but trying to get her in shape for living on her own. It’s a fascinating performance that makes Lippard’s wan directorial gambits look like mistakes.