TAKE TIME TO LISTEN
at Chicago Actors Project
Much attention has been given to the physical and sexual abuse of children--a virulent epidemic in our society, the evidence indicates. The Theatre Collective's Take Time to Listen, a short--just over an hour long--evening of playlets and poetry, explores a more subtle phenomenon: the psychological abuse suffered by the children of battling parents.
The evening's strongest portion is the first: No Why, a short play by the British writer John Whiting (The Devils). A bitterly funny look at the absurd ways in which society tries to wield moral authority over children, No Why shows an unnamed boy being punished for an unnamed misdeed; he has been confined to his room until he says he's sorry. As the boy sits silently, stoically, in a state of absolute alienation, his family tries desperately to get him to apologize.
"Make it better," urges his stern dad. "Say you done wrong."
"He doesn't understand," coos compassionate mom. "Explain it to him."
His sexy aunt urges him to experience "the pleasure of giving in" as she flirts with her thuggish teenage son, who sarcastically spouts tabloid headlines: "Won't Confess," "Appeal Fails." A female cousin who ministers to inmates of prisons and asylums holds herself up as an example. "I'm a wicked sinner, but I always repent." And grandfather sagely observes that saying you're sorry doesn't do any good--all that matters is justice.
Whiting takes the language of "enlightened" (noncorporal) methods of disciplining children and turns it into a Kafkaesque nightmare of ambiguous threats, disorienting double messages, and absurd lures as the goal of making the boy apologize becomes absorbed into the family members' struggle for authority and justification. In the end, the boy makes his own silent, shocking choice.
Counterpointing Whiting's play is Welcome, an original piece by Theatre Collective member Anthony Rowe. Here the gulf of noncommunication between parent and child is painfully, tentatively bridged, as a middle-aged father and his rebellious teenage son confront each other with unresolved conflicts stemming from the father's apparent abandonment of his kids following a divorce. Raw, unfinished, and sometimes overstated, the play nonetheless churns with commitment in its vivid if depressing account of growing up in the 60s and 70s and of the confusion and guilt felt by children of divorced parents.
The two short plays are separated by a monologue--a letter, apparently written by the father of Theatre Collective artistic director David Sinkus--in which an old man discusses his own conflicting feelings about being both (yet, now, neither) a son and a father. Well-intentioned as this section is, it interrupts the flow of the production.
The evening ends with Soundless Night, a theatrical collage of poetry written by children and adolescents. Typical of such work, it is full of strong, simple imagery and intense feelings of discovery presented with a minimum of artful disguise; even the occasional cliches acquire a sort of primal power in their identifiable realness. The actors deliver the poetry in a variety of ways--as song, as chanted children's games, as story-theater style.
Obviously produced on a very low budget, with a minimum of lighting equipment and props, and in a cramped and inflexible space, Take Time to Listen is still provocative and engaging theater. The actors have some beautiful moments that make the play well worth watching. Especially memorable are Richard Wofford's pained ambivalence as the boy, Peter DeFaria's menacing presence as the teenage cousin, and the guilt-tripping one-upmanship of David Sinkus and Susan Price as the father and mother in No Why; Val Fashman's defiant older sister in Welcome; and Colin Jones as a boy who can't cry in Soundless Night. Mark Harrison's lighting is characterized by bold, rough effects.
Robert Strom's direction is the weak point in the production, muddling several key interactions between the actors and the audience. A little tightening is needed, but just a little, to make this roadworthy production as effective as it needs to be to take its valuable theme to a wide audience.
Two recent deaths that went virtually unnoticed by the mainstream news media merit attention. Though New York-based, playwrights Donald Driver and Bill Vehr made major contributions to Chicago's burgeoning off-Loop theater in the early 1970s. Driver's situation comedy Status Quo Vadis was a major hit at the Ivanhoe Theater with a cast led by Bruce Boxleitner. Vehr's Whores of Babylon and Turds in Hell (the latter coauthored by Charles Ludlam) were underground must-see attractions when produced at the old Kingston Mines theater by the outrageous Godzilla Rainbow Troupe. Driver was in his mid-60s when he died in June, Vehr 47 when he died last week. Both were lost to AIDS.