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Chicago by John Olson

In a Dark, Dark House
Profiles Theatre

Also see John's review of Nine

In a Dark, Dark House
Darrell W. Cox and
Hans Fleischmann

A few years ago a New York theatre fan asked me why a New Yorker might want to make a theatre trip to Chicago. There are tons of good reasons, but I still struggle to come up with the sort of concise answer that works at cocktail parties: to see most anything at Steppenwolf, the Goodman or Chicago Shakespeare (especially the view of Chicago's skyline from their lobby at intermission). To this list, I would also add to check out the intense realism of the Profiles Theatre, especially when their Associate Artistic Director Darrell W. Cox is on stage, which fortunately is most of the time.

Finishing up their "Season of LaBute" (really two seasons if you count their long run of Neil LaBute's Fat Pig last year), is their current production of that writer's most recently produced effort. In a Dark, Dark House is one of the strongest and most archetypically Profiles stagings I've seen in some time. LaBute is a perfect playwright for this company that favors realistic and edgy social drama, and LaBute favors small casts that fit nicely on the stage in Profiles' 50-seat storefront theatre. In this piece LaBute has created three characters that, while flawed, are considerably more sympathetic than the creeps with which his characters are more commonly associated. Unlike those of some of LaBute's earlier plays and screenplays, the people herein are more victims than villains.

The play is a rich and detailed exploration of the broad and enduring impact of child abuse on two families. The depth of damage caused by a pedophilic drifter who ingratiated himself into the family of Terry and Drew some twenty years earlier is gradually revealed through a series of twists and surprises that I won't spoil here.

Cox plays Terry, the role originated by Frederick Weller off-Broadway last Spring. With that role, LaBute gives Cox a virtual compendium of the character types he's done so successfully at Profiles over the years. Terry, the mid-thirties older brother of the two, is like many of Cox's previous roles, an outsider and deeply troubled. Terry can be quite charming, though, when he's seducing a teenaged girl in the play's second scene. (Men who manipulate and mislead younger women are another staple in Cox's resume.) The contrast between Terry's barely controlled anger and resentment toward younger brother Drew (Hans Fleischmann) and his lighter banter with the teenager Jennifer (Allison Torem) seem to suggest two different characters until LaBute and Cox tie it all together in the explosive final scene of this 95-minute one act play in which Cox displays Terry's unbearable emotional pain. It's an amazingly complex and compelling performance.

Though Terry is the central character, with the most stage time, Cox's skills are well-matched by Fleischmann and Ms. Torem. Fleischmann's Drew is a chameleon, yet created by Fleischmann in such detail that he's a specific person, albeit an elusive one. At the play's opening he's in a chemical dependency unit of a mental health vulnerable and fearful while alternating between a happy, playful demeanor and the depths of despair. Drew is apparently one of those charmers who has gotten his way for a long time, and is now dealing with the shock of accountability for his actions. As the teenager, Allison Torem (a Chicago high school junior) is entirely natural and cleverly captures the spirit of a girl a bit too wise and worldly for her years but not as much as she may think she is. Her scene with Cox is long and evolves slowly, and to her great credit, she keeps her performance fresh throughout. While she establishes character through consistent and defined manners of movement and speech, she doesn't repeat her tics or bits of business so far that we ever feel she's run out of ideas. I suspect playing a character of one's own age is not nearly as simple as it might seem to a non-actor, and her ability to create such a believable and natural character makes for a most impressive professional debut.

Director Joe Jahraus can take credit for the considerable chemistry between the performers and for creating a believably naturalistic style. The intensity never wanes, even though much is beneath the surface as the characters are attempting to keep their emotions in check and hide what's really going on inside. His cast feels perfectly natural in the small space, surrounded by the theater's four walls painted to resemble a wooded area in the set design by Brandon Wardell and Chris Chapin. (Set decoration of the walls is another Profiles trademark, at least recently.)

Sure, this played in New York a year ago, but I would tell my Manhattan-based friend who asked for a reason to see Chicago theater that you couldn't see it up close and surrounded by painted trees at the Lucille Lortel, nor could you see it for $15-$30. Storefront theater is one of the Chicago community's trademarks, so I would have to suggest a healthy helping of it to anyone visiting this scene. There's so much to see that I'm hardly qualified to say if Profiles is the best of it, but I notice that those who review theater professionally seem to never miss an opening there, so you decide.

In a Dark, Dark House will be performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through May 11 at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. Tickets can be purchased online at www.profilestheatre.com or by phone (773-549-1815).

Photo: Thad Hallstein

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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