Helvetica asks how seriously we should take an artist who never learned to be a human being | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Helvetica asks how seriously we should take an artist who never learned to be a human being

The main character, a novelist, is a font of imagination.

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A young adult novelist puzzles through fame, nostalgia, and the tedium of the everyday in Chicago playwright Will Coleman's crisp show for Death & Pretzels Theater. Helvetica Burke has been making up stories since she was little. Now that she's a professional author of fairy tale-like stories, her interactions with jaded grown-ups like her husband, who think of the imagination as a means of coping with life's ordinary dull tasks, become strained. As someone who never had to get rid of her fantasies, Helvetica has no way to confront bristly realities like death or domestic squabbling except by doing what she's always done: retreat to the better world of fantasy, and return to the boring round of existence with something more magical in her back pocket. Coleman's play follows Helvetica across a long trajectory of self-fashioning and self-deceit, asking how seriously a person's success in their art can be taken if they never learn how to be a human being.

Three actors play Helvetica at different life stages, with the bulk of scenes going to the superb Brianna Joy Ford as the writer in adolescence. Ford's scenes with Nick Strauss, who plays Helvetica's dad, are among the show's most moving. Unlike Helvetica, Strauss's character doesn't get to dismiss responsibility. He has the impossible task of explaining the world to someone who barely believes she has to live in it. That earnest clash deepens the play's uncommonly mature view of childhood. Madison Smith directs.   v

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