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Chicago by John Olson

The Fall to Earth

Entering the black box Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf, we see onstage a set that creates a hotel room so accurately it could be franchised by Marriott Courtyard. The set of The Fall to Earth, a world premiere that opened on April 3, is 100% accurate in details like its carpeting, artwork, table tents and luggage stand, and designer Jack Magaw's attention to detail is matched by Joel Drake Johnson's writing and the nuanced performances of the production's three-woman cast.

The action begins as two women (one of late-middle age, the other of early-middle age) enter the room after the older one struggles with the keycard. Dead-on details like these lead us to believe that The Fall to Earth will be a comedy about the generation gap between overachieving baby-boomers and their less-worldly parents. Fay (Rondi Reed), dressed as nicely as she can in an aqua-colored suit from JC Penney, is a middle-class woman who seems thoroughly thrilled by the experience of flying to a new city and staying in a hotel. Her daughter Rachel (Cheryl Graeff) is a business person who's seen far too many of these rooms. Fay carries a circa-1969 hard shelled suitcase while Rachel rolls in a black wheeled upright of the type that's de rigueur in any airport today. Amazed that their rental car agreement offers unlimited mileage ("Unlimited mileage?!"). Fay suggests they do some extra sightseeing to get their money's worth. She also catches on that Rachel's cell phone has free long-distance and that Rachel could easily call home to chat far more often than she does. In the first ten minutes or so there are a lot of laughs of recognition as Rachel tries to hide her impatience with Fay's naivete and Fay expresses her resentment at being corrected so frequently by her daughter.

It's clear that Fay and Rachel don't talk much any more, and we can infer that some important family event has necessitated this trip - a wedding or funeral, perhaps? But why isn't Fay's husband with them?

The reason for this visit is not a funeral, but something worse. They've come to identify the body of Rachel's 30-year-old younger brother Kenny and to clear out his apartment. The circumstances of his death are gradually revealed and I won't spoil them here, since much of the power of this play comes from the process of peeling off the layers of pain in Fay and Rachel's lives and family relationships. Let's just say that the family dysfunction grows to Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee-esque levels.

The humor and tragedy of the piece are masterfully captured by the cast and director Rick Snyder (who along with Ms. Reed is a Steppenwolf company member). They know how to use understatement and silence along with auditory volume and large physical action to cut through the initial detachment and conflict-avoidance of their characters to achieve a gut-wrenching confrontation with reality.

Ms. Reed's performance is amazing, catching every detail of this funny and tragic woman desperately trying to to be strong and upbeat even as she fights the demons of her life. She moves seamlessly from surface-level cheeriness and politeness to fury and brings to mind the type of blowsy, frumpy character so effectively created by Shirley Booth in her prime. Cheryl Graeff's performance tells us everything about Rachel's relationship with her mother with her face, body language and very few words (until later in the piece when her rage boils over). The third character is Terry (Sarah Charipar), a sensitive and professional female police officer who serves the classic dramatic role of the outsider who sparks conflict. Terry's job is to give Fay and Rachel the details of Kenny's death and show them his body. Her empathy for their situation leads her to become more involved with the two than proves to be wise for any of them. Terry has her own burdens - a son with a reading disability, possibly a troubled marriage, and self-image problems relating to her weight - and Fay (perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not) rubs salt rather than salve into these wounds. Ms. Charipar touchingly realizes Johnson's wholly-original character, the only fully-sympathetic one in the piece.

Johnson's writing accurately catches the nuances of contemporary American life and reminds me of the qualities I like best in the writing of Kenneth Lonergan. It's believable and well-written without being self-consciously so. However, at 95-minutes without an intermission, the piece may be either a little too long or some 30 to 40 minutes too short. Johnson certainly creates three full-blooded characters, but at the end I felt more revulsion than empathy for Fay. I would like to either learn a little more about her or get away from her sooner. I'll be interested to hear if he takes either of those directions for future productions of the piece. Regardless, The Fall to Earth contains writing, and especially performances, well worth seeing and I hope there will be a major transfer or new production in its future.

The Fall to Earth is playing at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theater through May 2, 2004. For ticket information visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.

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-- John Olson



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