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Chicago by John Olson

Trust
Lookingglass Theatre Company

Also see John's reviews of Chess and An Evening With Stephen Sondheim

Trust
Amy Carle, Philip R. Smith, Allison Torem and Morocco Omari
A recent book by Professor Mark Bauerlein of Emory University expresses alarm at the hold the Internet has on teens and tweens. He contends the Internet's ability to keep kids connected with their peers 24/7 causes them to be isolated from adults and removes them from the influence and supervision of parents and teachers to a greater degree than ever before. Bauerlein's concern is the damage this isolation does to the education and personal development of youth. This is not the theme of Trust, but his observations about the way the Internet and digital communication facilitate the maintenance of an alternate teen world free of adults illuminate its story of a 14-year-old girl's rape by an online predator.

In this world premiere play by David Schwimmer and Andy Bellin (based on a screenplay by Bellin and Rob Festinger), a girl just turning 14 and beginning her freshman year in a suburban Chicago high school has an online boyfriend from Connecticut she's never met face-to-face. It's a secret she keeps from her parents, chatting with the seemingly perfect "Charlie" in chat rooms on her laptop and iPhone from the privacy of her bedroom. Charlie is sweet and supportive, a soccer player like her who can give sports advice as well as the reassurance a teen needs to hear that they really are okay. Her parents, who seem to work hard at being "cool" ones, know of her absorption in digital communication with her peers—even giving her a brand new laptop for her 14th birthday—but they seem unaware of the other risks for a kid chatting with strangers online. Besides, their three children are all "good kids"—Annie's older brother Peter is about to enter the University of Michigan while Annie and younger sister Katie are happy and well adjusted. What's there to worry about?

Had the parents been more aware of Annie's online conversations, they most likely would have sounded an alarm when Charlie gradually admits to being not in high school, but in college—then changes his story again to say he's 25. They might have doubted his explanation that a broken webcam was the reason he couldn't talk to Annie via video chat. When the parents take Peter off to college, leaving Annie and Katie home with an aunt, Charlie comes out to Chicago to visit Annie and the visit has dire consequences. It turns out Charlie isn't 25, he's 35 (or so he says, he's probably much older) and he persuades her to have sex with him, even though every instinct in her heart and mind is telling her not to.

In the program notes, Schwimmer explains that he's been on the Board of the Rape Foundation of Santa Monica for over ten years and that his inspiration for this project and this specific story came from the testimony of a parent whose daughter was attacked by an online predator. He says they researched the topic through interviews with counselors, victims, the police and the FBI. Their research shows, laying out in harrowing detail the sophisticated ways in which the predator preys on a young kid's insecurities and natural distance from her parents in order to first win her trust and then avoid detection by the authorities. Schwimmer and Bellin's commitment to the cause is evident as well. Each performance is followed by either post-show discussions or panel discussions and information, and fact sheets are offered in the lobby by a consortium of legal and social service agencies.

I expect this play will be effective as education for its audiences and will motivate many to action after experiencing the power of its later scenes. Beyond Trust's detailed description of the mechanics of online predatory practices, it powerfully shows the psychological damage of this abuse. Much of the credit here belongs to the young actress, Allison Torem, who plays Annie. Her Annie changes convincingly from an upbeat, hopeful soccer teen to a kid in the despair of major depression. Torem masterfully communicates complex emotions like those in the scene where she meets Charlie for the first time. In her scenes with Raymond Fox, who plays Charlie with a perfect balance of apparent normality and underlying menace, we see how she's torn between her instincts that something's wrong and her inclination to trust and obey the "authority" of adults. She's resentful about her deception but wanting to hold on to her fantasy of this perfect guy who she feels understands her better than anyone else. She holds on to this belief as a defense mechanism even after the abuse has been discovered by her family. With this performance, Torem, who made her professional debut in Profiles Theater's production of Neil LaBute's In a Dark, Dark House two years ago, confirms she's one of the top young actresses in this city. As her father, Will, Philip R. Smith himself falls into depression over his perceived failure to protect, and delivers a heartbreaking monologue in the final scene that enables the audience to not only understand but feel the psychic damage of child sexual abuse on the child and the family.

The play is not without its faults in getting to that final moment. The early scenes, establishing the lifestyle of Annie's family and her world at school and online, often feel contrived, packing in as many references to youth culture as possible in a short time. ("The Hills," Zac Efron and Robert Pattinson are all invoked within about 60 seconds, for example). For the first half of the play—until Annie's abuse has become known by the family—the characters are mostly just archetypes intended to serve the writers' illustration of this societal problem, rather than having any unique qualities of their own. There's also an inconsistency in Will. He's shown to be ignorant of the ways of teen social online networking (presumably to better set up a warning to parents in the audience who may equally unaware and to show how Annie's abuse was allowed to happen), but he's also said to be an expert in marketing to tweens. That sort of expert would know all about vehicles and practices of texting, chat rooms, IMs and the like. Will also has a supervisor at work, Al (Keith Kupferer), who's insensitive to the issue of sexual abuse at the least and may be a borderline pedophile at worst. Al may be there to make the point that society is somewhat complicit in the problem, due to its passivity, or worse, its sexualization of youth. It's a fair point, but dramatically it feels contrived.

As noted earlier, Trust is a stage adaptation of a screenplay. (The film, directed by Schwimmer and starring Clive Owen and Catherine Keener, recently wrapped and a release in 2010 or 2011 is planned). Schwimmer directed this stage version as well, along with Heidi Stillman. The directors achieve a cinematic style using a giant wall of video monitors upstage to show physical settings through still photography and video. Onstage, the actors work with minimal pieces of furniture which can be moved quickly and used to suggest different objects and places. This mostly works, but at times (like when the family is sitting on chairs that suggest the family car) it's a little too theatrical and fights the script's realism. Schwimmer and Stillman also have some trouble with sightlines in the three-quarter thrust playing area they've configured for the production. The wall of video monitors is used quite effectively, though, to put cyberspace conversations on stage by displaying chat and text messages as the characters type them. All told, the multimedia design (by Bridges Media) is flashy and engaging. There's also an effectively moody background score by Rick Sims that further establishes the piece's tone.

Whatever theatrical or dramatic flaws one might find in Trust, it ultimately delivers, through the power of its final scenes and the intentions of its creators to educate on the dangers of online predatory practices and to spark individual change to prevent them. Education is a very legitimate purpose of theater (even if it is seldom practiced in professional theater) and the people behind Trust are to be commended for giving audiences not only such an enlightening lesson, but through the efforts of their social agency partners, the resources to take action.

Trust runs through April 25, 2010, at Lookingglass Theatre, inside Chicago's historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. at Pearson. Discounted parking is available for Lookingglass patrons at nearby Olympia Centre Garage (161 E. Chicago Ave.). To purchase tickets, call the Lookingglass Theatre box office at (312) 337-0665 or visit lookingglasstheatre.org.


Photo: Sean Williams

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-- John Olson



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