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Regional Reviews: Chicago

The New Colony

Also see John's reviews of The Brother/Sister Plays and August: Osage County

Wes Needham, Evan Linder, Caitlin Chuckta, Kevin Stangler, Sarah Gitenstein, (Partially shown) Tara Sissom, Maari Suorsa
Christian fundamentalists have been a popular subject of dramatic art in recent years, but rarely have they gotten a fairer shake than in this world premiere comedy about counselors at a summer bible camp. Though playwrights Tara Sissom and Evan Linder find plenty of occasions to poke fun at the conformist behavior and rote mantras of the evangelical Christians, they show understanding and compassion for their characters. Beneath the gospel-rock and the Christian cheers, they show us a group of college-age adults who are trying to figure how to use these purportedly simple and unambiguous moral principles both within and outside the cloistered world of churches and Bible camp.

Sissom and Linder do this economically in the context of a traditionally structured comedy. The setting is the day and night before Camp Methuselah Pines opens for the summer. The staff has arrived for "Counselor Night," a time of bonding and preparation for the session ahead. It's a familiar routine for them—all but one has been through this before—but there wouldn't be a play if events didn't take an unexpected turn, would there? Sore muscles acquired in their ritual "swamp walk" lead four of the eight counselors to help themselves to the Aleve tablets in the new counselor's bag. Trouble is, the tablets aren't Aleve, they're Ecstasy, and they become a kind of truth serum which will lead to some unintended revelations over the course of a long night's journey into day. If the premise borrows from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the execution here is gentler and funnier than the Albee classic.

Gung-ho Camp Director Kip, leaving the counselors alone for the night so he can enjoy some quality time with his wife before the campers arrive, lays the ground rules for "Counselor Night." Played strictly for laughs by Tim Cunningham, Kip is utterly resolute in his faith and his leadership style. He leaves Anna (Sarah Gitenstein), his newly named head counselor, in charge for the evening, a move which disappoints the ambitious Nate. Played by Kevin Stangler as headstrong and manic, Nate wears his frustration on his sleeve. He gets to show his leadership skills, though, after Anna and three of the other counselors start to feel the effects of the forbidden tablets of Ecstasy. As the night progresses we see the cracks in the foundation of the counselors' faith and their struggles to reconcile their stated beliefs and values with their feelings.

Anna, played earnestly and maturely by Gitenstein, has been accepted to divinity school, but fears she's not taken seriously enough as a Christian since she lacks a compelling back story of salvation. She'd also really like to have sex, especially with fellow counselor Chance, an intellectual Harvard Divinity student who challenges the infallibility of the Bible— far more vocally than he otherwise might if not for the Ecstasy. Whit Nelson plays him as charmingly and supremely confident, with a charisma the others are drawn to even if they won't acknowledge it. Siobhan, perhaps the most religiously rigid of the group, reveals her out-of-season physical relationship with Nate. Caitlin Chuckta nicely shows Siobhan's vulnerability under her resolute exterior.

The fourth counselor to be under the influence is Louis (Wes Needham), a sweet and likable jock returning to the camp after a year's absence. Needham's Louis is a straight arrow who's apparently always tried to do the right thing, but is carrying a big secret. The classic outsider who by bringing Ecstasy into the camp sets the conflicts in motion, is the new lifeguard, a girl named Jack (just Jack). Jack's not really religious but just needed a summer job. Maari Suorsa has the swimmer's build for the part and nicely captures Jack's guilt over her drug smuggling and faux spirituality. Co-author Tara Sissom is a less-complicated Southern Belle, devout but enthusiastically sweet about it, to the point of well-intentioned abrasiveness. Sissom's writing partner Linder gives himself the role that seems to most closely express the writers' point-of-view. His Finn is taking a vacation from God, following a near-fatal accident. He hasn't rejected his faith, but is taking a coolly objective look at religion and the way it's practiced by these believers.

Meg Johns' direction is fast-paced and energetic, capturing the enthusiasm of the counselors as they arrive and reunite with their friends for the summer, their passion for their mission work and the chaos of the accidental drug use. She keeps the laughs coming at a rapid-fire place before transitioning smoothly into the reflective mood later in the second act. Johns finds ways to balance the comic aspects of the characters with their more human moments. She makes great use of Nick Sieben's dead-spot-on set of the camp's main building—a knotty pine meeting hall with porches and a roof top for scenes breaking away from the main action. Original church camp songs by Thea Lux add to the authenticity.

Like Linder's play from last season, Frat, 11::11 (the title refers to a Bible verse) is a clear-eyed and non-judgmental look at a societal institution that urges conformity among its followers. The ritualistic conformity and resulting lack of self-awareness that result from it are great fodder for comedy, but the two plays both compassionately acknowledge the needs these institutions fill for their followers. Here Sissom and Linder show the risks of blind obedience without accompanying critical thinking.

11:11 will play at the Victory Garden Biograph, in the Richard Christensen Studio Theater at 2433 N. Lincoln through March 13, 2010. Tickets are on sale through or by calling the Victory Gardens Box Office at (773) 871-3000.

Photo: Anne Petersen

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