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Father and Child

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SINS OF THE SAINTS

Two Theories Productions

at Cafe Voltaire

A poetry professor of mine used to say that an image is its own best container of meaning, an idea Chicago theater artists would do well to study. Too much of Chicago theater--notably among the smaller companies--remains in the stranglehold of the 20-year-old kitchen-sink aesthetic, which sees lurid displays of emotion as the beginning and end of drama. But without a meaningful visual context, such acting rarely rises above its most literal aspects. Even the brightest performance will be reduced to an inconsequential glimmer if it's unimaginatively staged or lost in a sea of visual clutter. Directors ask us to watch their work, but too often give us little to look at.

In Sins of the Saints, a new one-act about a pathologically self-absorbed writer suffering the aftereffects of childhood sexual abuse, writer and director Stephen Tomac delivers one extraordinarily powerful image. Kirkaby, the protagonist, sits in his underwear on his living-room sofa while the figure of Father Patrick, his childhood priest, stands behind him, coolly instructing an imaginary 12-year-old Kirkaby to remove his clothes piece by piece. Whether Kirkaby willfully ignores or simply doesn't hear the priest is left intentionally ambiguous, but the adult Kirkaby "coincidentally" puts on each item of clothing just as the priest tells his younger self to take it off.

That image of inversion creates a rich context in which a simple gesture achieves great significance. Kirkaby's effort to conceal his body makes his vulnerability painfully clear; watching him actively deny his shame makes the feeling all the more present. The image also ties this horrible moment from Kirkaby's past to an everyday activity--getting dressed. One imagines Kirkaby reliving this trauma every day.

All by itself this carefully constructed, multilayered image, which takes only a few minutes to unfold, accomplishes this production's stated agenda: to "explore the very real, very human ties which bind child molestors to their victims." But the rest of this 45-minute play leaves no lasting impression. Kirkaby's mother and his first childhood crush, whom he imagines are in the room with him, and his current girlfriend, who's really there, endlessly discuss their stunted relationships with him-but these relationships seem merely academic next to the emotionally charged one with Father Patrick. Without precise images to enlarge upon these discussions even the blocking here seems haphazard--most of the text simply dissipates.

Despite some affecting performances--Guy Washburn as Kirkaby, Rebekah Smith as the girlfriend, and Sullivan Hester as the childhood crush--a lack of craft in both the writing and the staging prevents the characters from achieving any significant depth. And without that depth, a play centrally concerned with troubled relationships is going to come up short.

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