Martin McDonagh's allegorical tale concerns a young man, Katurian, who writes short stories in which children are tortured and killed. A sensitive man and victim of child abuse himself, his writings bring him to the attention of the authorities in an unnamed totalitarian state when a series of child killings mimicking his stories is reported. Katurian (Jim True-Frost) and his developmentally disabled brother Michal (Michael Shannon) are questioned by two detectives – the self-proclaimed "good cop" Tupolski (Tracy Letts) and "bad-cop" Ariel (Yasen Payankov). Neither of them are all that good. Ariel is the more violent, but perhaps less dangerous in his directness than the sarcastic and devious Tupolski. At first it appears that McDonagh is going for a fable in which the mere expression of an idea can be grounds for not only criminal investigation but capital punishment. He goes way beyond that in exploring themes concerning the relationship of the individual to society and the recognition that pain – even unthinkable, excruciating, unbearable pain - is an unavoidable element of art and even life itself.
It's not often that Steppenwolf picks up a play after Broadway. More frequently they promote new plays and playwrights. The Pillowman, though, is a perfect fit to the talents of ensemble members Frost, Letts, Peyenkov and director Amy Morton. Ms. Morton's sure direction never misses a beat and creates a tone in which the terror of prisoner Katurian and revulsion of the cops toward his presumed crimes is balanced and relieved by some of the blackest, driest comedy ever written. The director and cast's precise timing could power an atomic clock. Letts is a master of smug, all-knowing sarcasm while Peyankov's trademark coarseness gives way to a character with more layers than we would imagine. Both detectives evolve from hardened cops and agents of the totalitarian to complex characters who reveal humanity and even a level of vulnerability. Frost as Katurian is onstage most of the time, and his intensity – from initial wariness but optimism following his arrest, to a recognition that he must take steps to resolve the lives of himself and his brother – never flags. As the damaged brother, Michael Shannon never panders, but communicates the mind and spirit of a simple man for whom fantasy and reality are indistinguishable.
The action could be occurring anytime within the past or the next 50 or 60 years, and the genius of this production is its believability in whatever times and places we might imagine it. Loy Arcenas's overtly theatrical set places the action at the police station amidst a mostly bare stage, supported by only a few props. Upstage, Katurian's stories are performed on a classical proscenium. Christopher Akerlind's lighting is harsh for the interrogations and dreamlike for the stories, and the costumes of Ana Kuzmanic manage to be both realistic and neutral enough to bring us into a world which McDonagh has defined in only the most general of terms.
A play about unthinkable violence against children will always be a tough sell. This one ran just under six months on Broadway. If enough regional theaters can get The Pillowman in front of their subscribers, these audiences can enjoy the chance to see the potential for legitimate value in shock value.
The Pillowman plays in the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre through November 12, 2006. For tickets, visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.