Regional Reviews: Chicago
Also see Christine's review of From the Mississippi Delta and Karen's review of London Road
By the playwright's design, it's truly hard to know what to make of the play itself. It's tempting to say that it feels longer than its 90-minute run time. It does. In particular, one wants to argue that it drags after things take a turn (again, this is understatement), but it is clearly designed to drag in exactly the places (some of) the audience would very much like to move on from. And ultimately, it's impossible to give voice to the usual "I'd have liked more of this, less of this" and "I was interested in this, not so much in that" without acknowledging that this is precisely the point that Sibblies Drury is making about the power of (some) subjectivities.
It's less difficult to know what to make of the production. Half a day after attending the opening night performance, I still feel shaky and exhausted by the skillful, carefully executed barrage of dialogue and movement. This is not–and not meant to be–the controlled, curated emotional experience of a typical night at the theatre.
The Revival's space is essentially a long, shotgun room. The scenic design by Sydney Lynne Thomas sets the action on a thrust raised a few feet above floor-level that intersects the length of it. At the end of what will be the Fraziers' living room is an abbreviated set of bleachers separated from the thrust by a narrow aisle, which is itself flanked by two support posts wrapped in thick rope. The audience is seated in banks of seats stage left and stage right. There's no getting around the fact that the sightlines are difficult, but again, given what the play is about, Phillips and the design team are using these features, rather than overcoming them.
The living room set is carefully generic. There is a couch in a forgettable color with a profusion of throw pillows. There is a coffee table and a dining room table and chairs that have no defining characteristics whatsoever. On an end table sits an assortment of trophies that act as shorthand for a respectable, non-threatening, utterly bland Black family that includes a high-achieving teenager. The only distinctive item on the set (and it may even be a permanent feature of the space itself, which has art displayed throughout) is a black-and-white canvas over the couch with a design that suggests a Rorschach test.
Alexandria Richardson's costumes bring the uncomfortably familiar archetypes to life. Beverly, the uptight hostess who needs everything to go perfectly, wears a pleated skirt, a knit top, and a cardigan in soft earth tones. Dayton, her long-suffering husband, looks somehow much cooler than she does in his Fred Rogers cardigan and button-down. Jasmine, Beverly's sister, is the Sassy Black Queen in an animal-print bodysuit with pleather joggers, and Keisha's stonewashed, high-rise jeans and crop tops lift her out of the '80s/'90s and yet place her firmly in the present, too.
The lighting design by Brenden Marble and Razor Wintercastle, Willow James's sound design, and Mariah Bennett's props work together expertly to strategically heighten and soften as the play turns both dark and absurd.
In terms of the cast, it seems necessary to first acknowledge the individual and ensemble work of Kandice Robins (Beverly), David Goodloe (Dayton), Martasia K. Jones (Jasmine), and Jada Jackson (Keisha), certainly in the first stretch of the play, but especially in the second, where the text calls on them to silently reenact everything that has just happened as the other actors clamber up on to the bleachers to have the abrasive, inane, maddening conversation that (again, quite purposefully) seems to go on forever.
Long before these white cast members begin gradually to comment on the dumb show, the gaze of the audience is constantly drawn to the Fraziers as we seek to escape that conversation, or perhaps to catch them out in a move, a facial expression, or a conversational beat that doesn't play out in exactly the way our memories insist it does. The direction and performances are remarkable here.
But to also give each cast member their individual due, Robins is the first to raise the viewer's antennae. It is difficult to manufacture stiltedness in a way that is not broad and over-the-top, but Robins skillfully conjures a two-dimensional character burdened with agonizing exposition, and her work plays beautifully off Goodloe's animated, painstakingly non-threatening charisma.
As Jasmine, Jones is lovably irritating and so animated that she draws a belly laugh when she whips out a folding fan. She hits every beat from every show and movie, and convinces us that this character is a Character with a capital C. As with Robins and Goodloe, this work completely draws the audience in and pays off in an earth-shaking way as the play goes meta and we are forced to confront exactly why the performances are so engaging and yet so utterly predictable.
In a show that is obviously exacting for all concerned, Jada Jackson has arguably the most demanding role as Keisha. Her silent fear and horror at the play's first truly critical moment are beyond contagious. She doesn't merely break the fourth wall in the end, she demolishes it and insists that the audience confront the ruins.
The white cast members have a task whose challenges are completely distinct from those of their Black cast mates. Each is no less an archetype, and yet it's crucial that they render their dialogue naturalistically. Barbara Figgins is the insidious heart of this as Suze. Her performance lends real teeth to Jimbo's "nice liberal lady" epithets, and it's hard to imagine Max Stewart's untethered 8Chan persona working nearly so well without the trust and rapport between the two actors.
As Mack, Collin Quinn Rice is the perfect off-beat foil to Suze. We like his Sassy Gay Man because it is so thoroughly appropriated from the comfortable beats Jasmine has already played to our well-worn specifications. The character of Bets is perhaps the most difficult to integrate into what is already a high-wire act, yet Carley Cornelius gets under our skin in a productive way as well.
Definition Theatre's Fairview runs through May 21, 2023, at The Revival, 1160 E 55th Street, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.definitiontheatre.org.