I liked the piece a lot when it opened (see my review), but thought it wrapped up too quickly, and felt a bit incomplete. I made a return visit recently to see if I'd still feel the same way about the ending and to check out the current cast. This time around, the play's resolution felt perfectly earned and I think that's mostly because the central character of Sarah (played now by Sarah Wellington) seems to be figured out better. Sarah's apparently the older of the two siblings. Her age isn't revealed but it's hinted that she may be 40. She's single and has avoided marriage and commitment, preferring the company of younger men she doesn't need to take seriously. I didn't see Cheryl Graeff in the role, but Profiles' artistic director Joe Jahraus told me the company worked on the ending without changing any of the script when Graeff was put into the role last June. In Wellington's hands, Sarah is a bit rougher around the edges than Barrie's Sarahnot quite as well put together or poised. It's easier to picture her hooking up with the single father she meets at her late dad's old neighborhood bar and she shows simultaneously an independence and insecurity that more clearly explain her actions. Wellington has a passing resemblance to actress Rachel Griffiths, and her Sarah is the sort of tough but troubled woman Griffiths has done so well in Muriel's Wedding and Six Feet Under.
Joe, the single father Sarah meets, is now played by David Vogel, and while he's not as successful as Cox was in landing the off-handed humor Fairey's written for the character (Cox is a master of underplaying), his character has a winningly unpolished veneer. He looks and sounds every bit the aging jock who probably married too young and hasn't quite gotten around to growing up. The part of his precocious teenaged son Miles is now played alternately by Vic Kuligoski and Bubba Weiler. The latter was in the night I attended and he gives a high energy, even manic, performance while still showing a lot of sensitivity and vulnerability. He reads as a bit younger than Jackson Challinor, who originated the part, but that's only marginally problematic. Eric Burgher, the only holdover from the original cast, is still fresh and spontaneous as Sarah's slacker brother Sam. Emily Vajda, now playing Sam's ex, is impressive in her short but important time on stage near the end of the piece.
From this second viewing, I've come to appreciate even more Fairey's rare gift for writing equally sympathetically for characters of both genders. Sarah, Sam and Joe are all shown in stages of arrested development, but Fairey judges none of them harshly. Sarah's free-spirited nature is shown to have its cost in her difficulties connecting with others. Sam is utterly without direction without a girlfriend. Joe, prematurely single again, inappropriately seeks to be a buddy more than a dad to his son. The son, Miles, is a city kid, probably smarter and more thoughtful than his peers. For that reason, as well as the way Joe seeks an adult relationship with him, Miles is likely more comfortable with adults and isolated from his peers. That's a tough place for a kid to be and whoever gets to play Miles in New York will have an opportunity to get a lot of critical attention in this choice role. Last time around, I wanted to learn more about the characters than Fairey told us, but now I'm enjoying filling in my own subtext from the hints she provides. Graceland now feels to me like a tight, concise piece that's right-sized for its short-story-like tale. Making it any bigger or more explicit could break this tough but delicate play.
Graceland will be performed Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through December 20, 2009 at the National Pastime Theater 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago (Check in first at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway). Tickets available online at www.profilestheatre.org or by phone at 773-549-1815.