The world of Chicago writer Joe Meno is strange and often enchanting. Best known for his short stories and novels, Meno has written a play, Star Witness, that's getting a likable first production from the House Theatre of Chicago (which also staged his The Boy Detective Fails in 2006). But neither Meno nor director Sean Graney has figured out how to unleash all the fascinating weirdness the script has to offer. In fact, they've managed to set loose exactly half of it.
A young girl named Jamie Fay has gone missing from the small southern-Illinois town of Somerset, leaving only a pair of bloody pink sneakers behind. Shelley, a 19-year-old dreamer with a crummy waitressing job, jumps on her Schwinn Sting-Ray (also pink) and pedals madly into the night, hoping to find Jamie Fay even though a swarm of police has come up with nothing. She puts an eight-by-ten photo of the child in the bicycle's front basket, as though the image itself could summon her from the darkness.
Instead, it summons a trio of Somerset's most peculiar folks—precisely the ones Shelley's foster grandmother, Hazel, suspects might be responsible for Jamie Fay's disappearance.
First Shelley pedals up to Bob White, a laborer who lost his right hand in an industrial accident years earlier. Now he works on the assembly line at a local toy factory, perpetually distressed that when dolls emerge from their molds misshapen—missing a head, say, or a hand—they're melted down so that they might reemerge perfect the next day. Bob talks a bizarre blue streak, but all he really wants is for Shelley to tell him he's not ugly—maybe even touch his prosthetic hand, just for a second.
Next Shelley encounters Junior, a motel night clerk moonlighting as a tourist photo opportunity: He's dressed as the monster that supposedly lurks in Somerset's Green Lake. Junior has invented "a whole new way to kiss," he boasts, and waxes ecstatic about the "most beautiful thing" he's ever seen—a mother, father, and toddler sleeping together naked in a bed at his motel.
Finally she meets mute, simpleminded Norris, wandering about in a powder-gray tuxedo and a Halloween mask. Given his creepy fascination with Jamie Fay's photograph, Shelley begins to think he could be the murderer. But the secret he ultimately reveals makes her believe peculiar dreams may still come true in backwater Somerset.
Shelley's nighttime journey from nowhere to nowhere has the lucid illogic of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz. Each time she encounters another mysterious, possibly dangerous new person, she's held captive by his perplexing allure and the urgency of her quest vanishes until she gets back on her bike and charges frantically off again. Meno cleverly subverts the hero's archetypal journey of self-discovery. Here, a series of antiheroes unmask themselves, revealing true identities that are less threatening but just as opaque as the masks they wore. Graney stages the play on a long runway in the Chopin Theatre's cavelike basement, and his cast find all manner of humor, intrigue, and menace in Meno's beguiling murkiness.
If this were the entire play, Meno might have a little gem on his hands. But Shelley's night journey happens during the second act of Star Witness. The first act is something else entirely.
It's a single, uninterrupted 45-minute scene set in Hazel's tiny kitchen, where she and Shelley do little but listen to a police scanner all day. Meno lets their lives unfold with the deliberate pacing of a standard-issue domestic drama, gradually revealing psychological quirks and backstories that should give their predicament dramatic immediacy. Hazel's husband was killed by a tornado. Shelley's parents kicked her out as a teenager. Both women can be devoutly Christian when it's convenient. Compelling as these details are, they come across as scattershot. Hazel and Shelley develop new fixations every ten minutes or so. Neither of them seems to need much from the other. They're clownish one moment, psychologically real the next.
Nothing coheres in the first act partly because Graney plays it so straight. He renders everything in conventionally realistic terms—including unmistakable upswells of weirdness such as Hazel telling a fairy tale directly to the audience, whom she addresses as "boys and girls." Maybe if Graney and Meno were to transplant act one into the dreamscape of act two, it would all make satisfying, illogical sense.