Regional Reviews: Chicago
Guirgis, who grew up and still lives in the ethnic, racial and economic melting pot of New York City's far Upper West Side, has a unique gift for capturing the lives of marginalized segments of society. But even more impressively, he has also shown an ability to depict those who live just on the other side of border between respectability and marginalization: those who have been incarcerated or addicted and are struggling to stay cleanor those close to people who fit that description.
As the title suggests (and Guirgis has a particular gift for coming up with titles), the characters of this play are very much living on the border between the "civilized" society of Manhattan's Riverside Drive and the insanity of the world of drug addicts and petty criminals nearby. "Pops" Washington (Eamonn Walker) is the widowed retired cop who holds the lease on a Riverside Drive rent controlled apartment. He shares it with his ex-con son Junior (James Vincent Meredith), Junior's girlfriend Lulu (Elena Marisa Flores), and Junior's paroled friend Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar). Pops lives on the respectable side of the borderhe has a reasonable income from his pension, keeps up a friendship with his still-working ex-partner Detective O'Connor (Audrey Francis) and her detective fiancé Lieutenant Caro (Tim Hopper). The others are on the opposite side of the divide. Junior seems to make cash from fencing stolen merchandise, Lulu claims to be studying accounting but is more likely a past or current streetwalker and Oswaldo is struggling to stay clean and sober and to find himself a job. Neighbors in the gentrified building aren't crazy about Pops's three housemates or the other assorted people coming in and out his place, and would like to see him evicted.
The play starts out as an entertaining comedy of the people on the edge and works well enough on that level until Guirgis's deliberate setup of the crisis is revealed late in the first act. Pops has had a lawsuit pending against the city for eight years to get damages for his wrongful attack by another cop while Pops was in plainclothes. The city has gotten impatient and makes threats to force a resolution, with his former partner's fiancé charged with delivering the offer/threat and closing a deal with Pops. Through this allPops is holding out for the best deal while trying to protect the adult son in spite of their difficult relationshipGuirgis shows us the difficulties in staying on the "right" side of the law in the face of so many forces pulling people back down.
Pops is a role for a star and director Yasen Peyankov has one in Eamonn Walker, whom TV fans might know from HBO's "Oz" and NBC's "Chicago Fire." While fans those won't be surprised for the stoic strength they saw in his militant Said on "Oz," or the authority of one charged with protecting the public as in "Chicago Fire," they are unlikely to be prepared for the range of talent he displays here. On stage most of the play, he shows a gift for humor and demeanors from gentleness to rage, impulsiveness to cunning. It's a fascinating performance, capturing all the angles of a man who has struggled to build a good life and family but is torn in so many directions.
Walker and his superb castmates have the benefit of director Peyankov, who as an actor and in his three directorial outings at Steppenwolf has proved to be a master of dry wit and comic timing that is all grounded in humanity. He has a special gift for creating characters with danger either evident or just underneath the surface. The six actors in supporting roles all deliver on these qualities. Meredith's Junior has a strong streak of duplicitous street criminal, while Flores's Lulu has an underlying decency along with a survival instinct. Almanzar is both hilarious and frightening as the recovering addict caught in the sort of denial that Guirgis writes so well. Francis and Hopper suggest a toughness from years of fighting crime underneath a general sociability, while Lily Mojekwu is supremely funny as a Jamaican "Church Lady" who also claims supernatural powers.
Collette Pollard's two-level set grounds the action in a realistic replica of an Upper West Side apartment on the bottom and the building's roof on the upper level. Together with Natasha V. Dukich's street-smart costumes, the visuals complete Guirgis's believable picture of a piece of society we audience members may not otherwise know from experience.
In a week where people are looking for answers, Between Riverside and Crazy is not going to provide any easy ones. It reminds us, though, that art is always a good place to start looking for answers and that Stephen Adly Guirgis is one playwright who can help understand these confusing and perplexing times.
Between Riverside and Crazy will play Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through August 21, 2016. For more information or tickets, visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.