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Chicago by John Olson

Pacific
Steppenwolf Garage Theater

Pacific
James Krag and
Rebecca Spence

The action of Pacific occurs somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego, and though this region contains some of the most affluent and presumably civilized communities in America, the play's characters frequently remind us of its natural inhospitableness. It's a desert in which coyotes still prowl ravines neighboring upscale housing developments and bordered by an ocean that may appear peaceful, but possesses its own dangers. Robert and Susan are a thirtyish professional couple struggling to cope with the realization, borne of a recent personal tragedy, that life is not as safe as they had believed and their ability to manage its risks is limited.

Susan, a university professor on leave since the tragedy (which is gradually revealed through the course of this three-character, one hour and twenty-minute play but which I won't spoil here), has become a compulsive listener of radio, voraciously absorbing details of disasters and accidents throughout the world and trying to better understand them and assess their risks. It's important to her to understand the difference between a typhoon, a hurricane and a tropical storm, for example. Her husband, who is apparently a corporate attorney for a wireless phone company, seeks to protect Susan from reminders of the tragic event, and he attempts to recover from the trauma by pretending to be over it.

The fragile equilibrium between the two is broken by a visit from Susan's brother Andersen, who is said to suffer from Asperger's Syndrome, a condition similar to autism in which the afflicted can communicate with others but has limited social skills. Andersen seems to say whatever comes to mind, regardless of the pain his statements can inflict. Robert and Susan agree that Andersen's behavior is frequently inappropriate and irritating, and Susan's attempts to set boundaries seem to summon additional strength in her. Enough of Andersen's arrows get through to their targets, though, hitting Robert and Susan's vulnerabilities and forcing them to reassess their situation.

Lacking the ability to self-edit his thoughts before sharing them, Andersen can incite conflict without raising a sweat. Brian Hamman plays him as a post-collegiate Iago as interpreted by film actor Jack Black. His longish hair parted down the middle flails wildly from side to side as he taunts Robert over lawsuits facing Robert's employer, offers his observations that Susan is looking older, or plays on the couple's doubts around their marriage. Someone like Andersen is the center of attention in whatever room they may be in and Hamman achieves that status spectacularly whenever he's on stage.

Rebecca Spence quickly pulls us in to Susan's anxiety and depression. She convinces us of the character's intelligence and underlying strength, providing a strong indication of the woman Susan must have been before the tragedy occurred. James Krag as Robert is less satisfying. His general demeanor of calm and control is too suddenly broken by eruptions into rage and he seems to return to his previous moods too quickly as well. His character is the only one of the three to be at all opaque; Krag could be more successful at playing Robert's unspoken subtext.

Pacific is a new play written by Andrew Case, whose previous work has been produced in venues including New York's 78th Street Theater Lab, the Lincoln Center Directors Lab and the New York International Fringe Festival. The program notes mention that his plays have been developed at the Eugene O'Neill Center, as well as other theater companies. He is partially successful at bringing an O'Neillian sensibility into a contemporary setting, capturing a good deal of present-day angst and establishing a significant degree of empathy for his characters. His use of the Pacific Ocean as a source of danger as well as comfort carries an extra dose of surely unintended resonance, given the recent Indian Ocean tsunami. The piece, however, suffers from a predictable pattern of action: polite conversation is followed by an angry exchange in which a character leaves the scene and shortly thereafter returns contritely. It gets old and keeps the piece from establishing much momentum. Director Molly Regan does a good job, though, of maintaining the tension and judiciously using comic relief as needed.

The set by John Dalton, depicting the deck of Robert and Susan's suburban home, is believably southern Californian. Christine Pascual's costumes - sweats for Susan, cargo pants and shorts for Andersen and a business suit for Robert - appropriately owe as much to Old Navy and Banana Republic as Case's writing does to Eugene O'Neill.

Case deserves high marks for creating a memorable and unusual character in Andersen and a believable, sympathetic one in Susan. His play looks and sounds like life today and touches some real nerve endings. While Pacific would be improved if it could provide a deeper understanding and more sympathy for Robert, audiences wanting to follow the work of promising new writers will find it worth their time and the price of admission to take a look at it.

Pacific runs through March 27, 2005 at the Steppenwolf Merle Reskin Garage Theater, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 and 7:00 p.m. and. All tickets are $15.00 and are available online at www.steppenwolf.org and by phone at 312-335-1650.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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