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Chicago by John Olson

In a Forest, Dark and Deep
Profiles Theatre

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In a Forest, Dark and Deep
Darrell W. Cox and
Natasha Lowe

The title suggests a relationship to Neil LaBute's earlier play In a Dark, Dark House and, like that piece, In a Forest, Dark and Deep, concerns two adult siblings. Seems likely we'll get a drama of family secrets and old resentments. Setting up that expectation is the first of several misdirects LaBute gives the audience in Forest. Yes, there are again dark secrets in this story of a an English lit professor and her conservative brother, which premiered in London last year with Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams as the two-person cast, but he goes somewhere else with his premise.

The sister, Betty, has asked her brother Bobby on short notice to come out and help her pack up her belongings from a second home in the woods, identified in the program as "somewhere in the Midwest," but a reference to I-94 suggests we're in LaBute's native Michigan. The siblings are neither estranged nor close—it would be fair to call their relationship strained. Though Bobby is willing to drive out into the woods to help pack so some new tenants can move in the next day, the strain is enough to erupt quickly in this 90-minute intermissionless play. Some of the conflict is based on class differences (she is a college professor while he has worked at a variety of low paying jobs); others arise from his disapproval of her romantic and sexual history.

Bobby's a bit of a redneck—not in a broadly stereotypical way, but he has pretty firm views on sin and morality as well as suspicions about academics and intelligentsia. As the two pack up books and dinnerware, Bobby stumbles across things raising suspicions that Betty's reasons for moving so suddenly may not be those she's given. Though we learn more about Betty as Bobby uncovers the truth, the play turns out to be more about Bobby's journey than hers, as he comes to suspect that his own moral standards may be more situational than he had believed.

It takes LaBute a while to get to that point, though. On the way to that moral, we're focusing on Betty, as the truth of her situation is discovered by Bobby. When new facts are revealed to Bobby and us, she has new explanations and new justifications—all given with the absolute certitude of one in a profession whose mission it is to pursue truth through academic research and to promulgate it through teaching. She's a tough character to play, given the way Betty deceives Bobby and the audience. It's hard to know what's really there behind all her pretenses.

As Betty, Natasha Lowe shows us as much about her as LaBute lets us know at any given point. Primarily, we see an underlying tension in her that quickly bubbles up into hysteria. We eventually learn there's good reason for that. It's tough to get a read on Betty until all is known at the end. This is no fault of Lowe's, but a result of LaBute's structure of the play as a taut 90-minute mystery. We would need to see her before this crisis in order to get a fuller picture of the character. Bobby is more transparent, and Darrell W. Cox gives one his best performances of recent years in the role. LaBute lets Bobby say what he's feeling at any moment—there's no pretense in the guy, at least not around his sister. He's a troubled guy, resentful at anyone who seems to have more than he does—money, status, education—and he has some dark moments in his past as well, including a hint of incestuous attraction to Betty that LaBute really didn't need to include. Still, Bobby has a sense of values that he tries to live by, and his struggles to follow them make him a fascinating character.

At the end of the day, LaBute seems to be saying we're all—progressive or conservative—trying to make sense of life and get by. Making Betty and Bobby a brother and sister suggests our common humanity. It's a valid argument that he makes clearly, if more intellectually than viscerally. Between his unraveling of the mystery and establishing what he can of the characters, it's a lot to do in ninety minutes.

Director Joe Jahraus keeps the tension high and the forward momentum strong throughout the hour and a half. The set is a gorgeously detailed two-story rural vacation home designed by Thad Hallstein—and is the first to make use of Profiles' new space in the former home of the National Pastime Theater. The greater vertical space of this storefront (now called their "Main Stage") and the configuration of its playing area with two adjacent walls at a right angle to each other give Profiles the ability for more elaborate and realistic scenery than is possible in its original space (now called "The Alley Stage")— and with minimal loss of intimacy versus the 50-seat Alley. This space, the sophistication of the technical design and the all-Equity cast of Cox and Lowe make this production more like that of a regional theater than a storefront—albeit on a very modest scale.

Staging an American premiere of a Neil LaBute play is a pretty big deal. The bigger deal may be if Profiles has created a new sort of hybrid of storefront and regional as it grows into an even more significant player on the Chicago theater scene.

In a Forest, Dark and Deep will play through June 3, 2012, at the Profiles Theater Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. Tickets can be purchased online at www.profilestheatre.org or by phone at 7873-549-1815.


Photo: Wayne Karl

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-- John Olson



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