Calamity West has two things that, in a just and sensible world, would lead inevitably to success: a pen name to give Lemony Snicket a run for his money and a knack for drama that makes her one of the best playwrights in Chicago. Or maybe the country. Or the universe.
But you'll catch only glimpses of West's mad talent in Jackalope Theatre Company's unconvincing debut of her new play, The Peacock. And I'll concede that my admission of West into the pantheon is based on only one play, Common Hatred, which the Ruckus premiered last year. But hey, all it took was one play—Angels in America—to get everybody to agree on Tony Kushner's genius. And he couldn't even come up with a good pen name.
Common Hatred sounds like somebody's undergrad thesis project: An overt homage to Chekhov, the script borrows key plot points and relationships from all of the Russian master's major plays. It was "devised" by the cast before West put pen to paper. But it's no style exercise or study in committee-think. It's an astute application of Chekhov's elusive, exacting methods, exposing the clumsy absurdity of love—especially love bolstered by little but unexamined hope—among an unremarkable group of friends and family gathered for the birthday of the person everyone likes the least. The result is penetrating, graceful, immediate, and achingly true. And West's subtle interpolation of global imagery—the earth, one character muses, is held up by shelves made of ice—gives the play a nearly cosmic resonance.
Most impressively, West finesses the century-old conventions of modernist drama to reveal the timelessness of the quotidian, making Common Hatred feel simultaneously classic and new. That satisfying tension is pronounced in her new play as well. The Peacock takes place immediately after World War II in a university creative writing class led by the Professor, a failed novelist. Of his four male students, only Calvin is a veteran, which may explain his imagined superiority over his classmates. Henry is a blowhard would-be subversive, Eugene is his fawning protege, and William is a monied cipher—all his personality is tied up in his camel hair coat. The lone female student, Nan, who wears a prosthetic leg, barely holds her own among the men despite the Professor's conviction that she's the best writer of the bunch. Or maybe he just wants to get in her pants.
Three weeks before the play begins, the other female student, Eleanor, hanged herself, perhaps encouraged by violent, disturbing imagery in Nan's stories. Nan now lives in Eleanor's abandoned apartment, a fact she conceals from everyone except William, who may be her new lover or a failed tryst. Calvin, who was likely Eleanor's lover, has brought a new story to class about a woman's inexplicable suicide. The Professor demands he write the suicide out before he'll be allowed to read it.
As in Common Hatred, West lays a web of tenuous, volatile connections among a group of half-likable characters. Continuing her Chekhovian approach, she sublimates much of the drama under daily ritual—in this case the quarreling of opinionated students. It's a heady, unstable mix, and West maintains a smart balance of threat and farce. In one of the most ingenious scenes, she manages to get all her characters stuffed into a closet at the history department's Christmas party—where they continue to debate the merits of Henry Miller.
It's a tricky world to make credible onstage. The students insult one another with such abandon that it seems the group should simply fall apart—to stick together, they'd have to eat, breathe, and sleep literature, finding no greater thrill than in dissecting a passage of prose, no matter who gets injured in the process. But in director Marti Lyons's hypercharged staging, that spirit is largely absent. The students never seem passionately interested in fiction, despite their emphatic disdain for poets, the Romantics, and all playwrights. They're mostly out to attack one another. And Lyons pushes her cast to make their characters' aggression so overt that it destroys any plausible excuse the Professor might have to let things go on. It's a curious stylistic choice from Lyons, whose previous Jackalope production, Lucas Neff's The Last Duck, was masterfully understated for 90 unrelenting minutes.
A different directorial approach could solve most of this production's problems. But West's got a problem only she can fix. If The Peacock has a defining crisis, it's Nan's struggle to maintain her dignity in this all-male milieu. But it's never clear what she hopes to gain by remaining in such a toxic environment. And her fraught relationships with William and Calvin, one of which ends in violence, lack discernible contours. Until Nan gets a story—or at least a meaningful goal—she's left treading theatrical water.
But hey, even a genius has an occasional misfire. Kushner followed up Angels in America with Slavs! There's a reason you haven't heard of it.