Playwright Ellen Fairey has a lot of affection for the characters in this world premiere play. They're neither winners nor losers exactly, but reasonably smart people who have made some bad choices. Fairey has a great ear for the way they talk and a sure feel of the milieu in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood – a diverse community that includes people like these characters, who are neither the youngest nor most successful unmarried professionals but still are players on the scene at some level. The cast directed by Matt Miller delivers her crisp, ironic dialogue and dry humor with skill, believably tossing off throwaway jokes like crumpled napkins that land squarely as intended and creating sympathetic and nuanced characters.
Sara, the deceased's daughter, is all tough and guarded on the outside. Apparently more shaken by her father's death than her brother is, she's trying desperately to at least appear in control. Brenda Barrie plays her as tightly wound, with her attempts to cut loose only making her more anxious. Darrell W. Cox as the single dad Joe is, in a departure from his usual roles at Profiles, a decent, uncomplicated guy. His Joe is neither suave, nor a buffoon nor a jerk, and Cox makes the most of this rare opportunity to show us his comic skills. Profiles regular Eric Burgher is Sara's dope-smoking, underachieving brother Sam (his current gig after dropping out of school is delivering fruit baskets) and finds a center for the guy that suggests there's more potential for Sam than his circumstances might suggest, as well as showing his grief over for the loss of his girlfriend (Somer Benson, in a small part).
As a teenager working in the cemetery, real-life teenager Jackson Challinor is a major find. He gives a nuanced, relaxed performance, capturing all the mannerisms of a contemporary teen but making Miles a character of substance and originality at the same time. He has a nervous energy and combination of daring and insecurity that keeps you focused on him whenever he's on stage. Sure, he's playing his age and probably has a lot of source material to draw from in his own acquaintances, but he's never self-conscious or trying too hard to please.
All the characters are looking for a way to move on and keep growing after losses, and I guess one point of Graceland is that we either grow or we begin to die. One hopes Ms. Fairey will consider this play to be a work in progress and flesh it out some more. The characters as performed by this cast are so rich and likable – you really root for them – but their journey over this 80-minute play ends too soon and wraps up too quickly and tidily. It seems there's more to say about these people and more for us to learn. Fairey's sympathy for the group is clear, but it feels like she's holding something back. If she can find it and earn the drama's resolution without overblowing the play, it could become something quite special. Graceland will be performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through August 16, 2009 at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. Saturday matinees at 5 p.m. will be performed beginning July 11. Tickets available online at www.profilestheatre.org or by phone at 773-549-1815.