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Fighter of a Fitful Dream

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FIGHTER OF A FITFUL DREAM

SST Productions

at the Civic Studio Theatre

Jeffrey W. Mangrum is a young man with a mission. He's the founder and artistic director of SST Productions, which uses theatrical presentations to promote substance-abuse recovery. (SST stands for Sane & Sober Theatre.) Only 27, Mangrum takes his generally youthful company into corporate lions' dens with educational shows whose targets are often professionally successful middle-aged people trying to break out of the pattern of addiction and denial that has developed parallel to their careers.

Knowing all this, one might expect SST's plays to be either didactic staged lectures or feel-good mush. But Fighter of a Fitful Dream, which expands SST's thematic focus by addressing the topics of unemployment and marital breakup, is neither of those things. Harking back to the social and psychological explorations of Ibsen on the one hand and Strindberg on the other, it's a rather surprising mix of naturalistic drama and expressionistic dream theater. And though it doesn't always work, it's offbeat and provocative enough to be more interesting--as well as more relevant to its audiences' lives--than a lot of more assured professional theater.

Roger Treacle is a 38-year-old middle-management type whose company is "rightsizing" itself. Roger has participated in the restructuring by helping decide which of his longtime colleagues will be laid off; now Roger himself has been restructured right out of a job. He arrives home, unable at first to tell his wife Fyaed the news, only to be confronted with another problem: his and Fyaed's 18-year-old daughter, a freshman at college, has called to say she was assaulted and wants to come home.

The pressures from these two situations bring Roger and Fyaed's suppressed alienation to the surface, in a stream of accusations and recriminations, which is all the uglier for the educated, civilized tones in which it's delivered. Suddenly Roger and Fyaed each find they don't know who the other is; worse--because they can't admit it--they don't know who they are themselves.

Though the story at first hinges on Roger's firing, it's ultimately as much about Fyaed's response to it. The hostility she has built up toward her husband is made clear in the play's first couple of minutes: Roger comes home, undresses, gets into bed, and hides under the covers breathing through a snorkel. Fyaed enters, makes a crack about Roger's masculinity ("Nice to see something popping up from the covers"), then asks Roger to talk to her; when he doesn't respond, she pours a glass of water down the snorkel. The bit is straight out of a TV sitcom, but any amusement it produces quickly pales as the audience realizes that deep down, Fyaed isn't kidding. She's fed up with feeling trapped, and if Roger's drowning she's inclined to speed it up.

The notion of dreams permeates the play. The central set piece is a large bed in which the couple's dreams and marriage have gone sour. Fyaed likens the sudden collapse of her life with Roger to a bad dream, and it's Roger's nightmare that takes up the whole second scene. At first it appears that Roger's awakened in the middle of the night: he gets up, lights one of the forbidden cigarettes he keeps hidden, and talks out loud to his sleeping wife about his confusion. But then the steamer trunk he keeps near the bed starts shaking, like Pandora's box barely holding in all the world's sorrows; then Roger, Fyaed, and their daughter Tracy suddenly take a camping trip in the middle of the bedroom. This image of security is suddenly replaced by a horror scene in which Roger is trapped in a spiderweb ruled by Michael, the supervisor who has given Roger his layoff notice.

Fighter of a Fitful Dream concludes with a woman closing a door (shades of A Doll's House) and the long-suppressed cry of a man who's made a lifetime habit of holding his feelings in. No answers, no sure solutions, just a long-overdue confrontation, the ending of a lie, and the beginning of some new lives.

Though Mangrum has written a series of plays for SST's Intervention Theatre programs, this is his first fully produced work; the others, created with the intent of touring to hospitals and high schools as well as corporate boardrooms, were performed in a simple, presentational reader's-theater style. Mangrum's inexperience with full-scale theater shows pretty glaringly; the dream sequence, with its elaborate technical demands (an exploding trunk and a huge spiderweb that appears from nowhere, for instance), would be hard to pull off convincingly under almost any circumstances, let alone in a low-budget production in a small space like the Civic Studio Theatre. And considering the important role of the Treacles' exalted, suddenly endangered economic status in this story, the cheap, makeshift bedroom set created by Julie K. Martino does more harm than good.

Beyond these technical problems, the production's biggest flaw is a lack of forceful tension, which seems due to weak direction by Paul Mapes. The challenge facing Mapes here is the relationship between a strong but reined-in wife and a passive husband; he's not a good enough director to guide the suppression of emotion into potent drama. As a result, the script's movement between superficially bland naturalism and heightened dream imagery feels arbitrary; Rob Procell, as Roger, and Lisa Marie Schultz, as Fyaed, need to support the play's extremes by suggesting the hidden extremes in their characters.

But Mangrum's script signals a talent worth watching. Rather than resorting to the usual cliches associated with problem drama, Mangrum peers into the dark alleyways in which lurk the keys to so many problems. The economic impact of Roger's layoff is only one component in the troubles faced by Roger and Fyaed--and many other people like them: average people who try to balance love and family and work and self-fulfillment and find that their emotional ends are as hard to make meet as their financial ones.

As I went home after the show, I passed by the Marshall Field's store in the Loop. News reports following the department store's sale to a Minneapolis company suggested that hundreds of people here could lose their jobs. That's not just corporate restructuring, that's people's lives.

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