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Chicago by John Olson

A Separate Peace
Steppenwolf Theatre for Young Adults

Also see John's review of Rent

A Separate Peace
Will Allen, Govind Kumar, Curtis M. Jackson and Damir Konjicija
Coming of age is never easy, but coming of age during a war, when being of age means being of draft age, is certain to lead to an early loss of innocence. Growing up during a "good war" may be even more hazardous. The tendency of youth to believe in absolutes of right and wrong combined with the country's complete faith in the mission and a young man's feelings of invincibility and invulnerability will lead to disillusionment at the least, tragedy at the worst. John Knowles' 1959 autobiographical novel, a classic of adolescent literature and the basis of a 1972 theatrical film and a 2004 TV movie, explores this theme among 16-year-olds in a New England prep school during World War II. The story is told in flashback by Gene Forrester, looking back on the events of 1942 at the fictional Devon School (loosely based on Knowles' alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy) from a decade and a half later.

This Steppenwolf for Young Adults production is a stage adaptation of the Knowles novel by Nancy Gilsenan. She condenses the 200-page novel to about an hour of stage time. While I haven't read the novel nor seen either the 104-minute theatrical film nor the 90-minute TV movie, this stage version feels thin. The plot concerns the relationship between two best friends, the studious Gene (Jake Cohen) and the charismatic, athletic Finny (Damir Konjicija). Gene turns on Finny, tragically, but in this adaptation it all happens too quickly. Gene's behavior is explained by the text, but his transition is too sudden to be believable on stage. I don't know if the play has been edited down to make a shorter running time to accommodate the many school groups attending performances or if the author believes adolescent attention spans would be too short to stay engaged with anything longer. (Teenagers are sticking with 2 hours and 45 minutes of Avatar, though, so they could probably handle 90 minutes of A Separate Peace.)

Regardless, Steppenwolf's A Separate Peace offers an opportunity to check out some rising young Chicago actors, beginning with the electric portrayal of Finny by Konjicija. He's a bundle of nonstop energy and completely believable as the magnetic jock. He mesmerizes and cajoles his buddies to follow his lead, and he's equally persuasive and charming with the teachers of the school. Konjicija effectively shifts into his character's quieter, sadder moments and believably shows his confusion as his beliefs are challenged and his hopes dashed. Cohen, who had a lead in Steppenwolf's Up! last summer, is convincingly thoughtful, brainy and remorseful as Gene. Another standout is Will Allan as Leper, a shy kid and devout cross-country skier who enlists in the Army before being drafted, so that he can be in the ski corps. Late in the play, Leper returns from the front after experiencing hallucinations and hysteria in battle. Allan is chilling in his portrayal of Leper's disturbed condition. Chance Bone is effective as the slick and political Brinker, who sparks the play's final confrontations, and Steppenwolf ensemble member Alan Wilder does fine work in the character role of the Headmaster. Rounding out the company as fellow students Bobby and Chet are Govind Kumar and Curtis M. Jackson, nicely playing younger than their actual ages and giving their characters the energy of teenagers.

Director Jonathan Berry successfully navigates the changes in tone from exuberant to tragic. He directs his cast to be a bit less New England aristocratic than he might have, a choice which probably makes it easier for audiences to see the universal themes in the piece. The set by Chelsea Warren—a dorm room bunk bed just below a tree branch which figures heavily in the action—is simple and suggestive. She and costume designer Alison Siple might have done more to suggest time and place, given the importance of World War II to the play, but the overall direction here seems to have been to keep the visual references less specific.

The company holds talk-backs after each performance, though not at the one I attended. I suspect hearing the reactions of the teenaged audience members might be as enlightening as the play itself. Do they make the connections to our current military engagements? If so, are they as idealistic as Knowles' characters or more cynical? I may have to return just to find out.

A Separate Peace will be performed in Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. Public performances are on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. through March 19, 2010. Weekday matinee performances (Tuesdays- Fridays at 10 a.m.) are available for school groups only. Public Ticket Price: $20 ($15 student tickets) available via Audience Services, 1650 N. Halsted, (312) 335-1650. Online ticketing available at www.steppenwolf.org. For information on Steppenwolf for Young Adult weekday school performances, contact the SYA Education Associate at (312) 654-5639.


Photo: Peter Coombs

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-- John Olson



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