THE JESUS THING and
DEAD BROTHER JOE
at Urbus Orbis
A DEEPER WATER
at Stage Left Theatre
Marvene is a troubled teenager. She drinks too much, her boyfriend is an addict, and she doesn't show up at school very often. The good kids are afraid of her and the bad kids beat her up, and she can't help but think that Hemingway was an asshole. Her parents are two twitching bundles of comic-strip neuroses. The only one who might help is her dead older brother Joe--and he never existed in the first place.
Stella is a troubled young woman. She drinks too much, her boyfriend is a pusher, and most of her friends are just as screwed up as she is. She spends the bulk of her time alone in a bus-station rest room, working out conversations she wishes she could have with her boyfriend. Since she has nothing to do, she does whatever her friend Mary does, and Mary is currently dodging a breakdown by pursuing a new life in Christ. Stella also turns to Christ, only to find that he is, after all, a Dead Guy.
Since Marvene (Elizabeth Paige) and Stella (Pam Gutteridge) seem trapped in the same world, I found myself wondering why they weren't in the same play. Instead each belongs to a different one-act by Leah Ryan, both mounted by Maipayne Productions.
The first one, Dead Brother Joe, is a thoughtful but quickly drawn sketch of teenage angst with comic undertones. Marvene's father (Leo Ford) communicates with caveman grunts, and her mother (Susan Mele) is a chain-smoking wreck right out of Lily Tomlin's repertoire. The older brother (Jason Locque) Marvene conjures up for herself smacks of Salinger (who's also quoted in the program), but this is less cornball homage than it is a reflection of Marvene herself, drawing her fantasy life from the best source available to her.
The play ends on such an ambiguous note that Stella--the protagonist in The Jesus Thing--could easily be Marvene a few years later, still looking for someone to listen to her. Where Dead Brother Joe is spare and tight and simple, The Jesus Thing tends toward the sloppy. The relationships are often confusing, and this short play doesn't allow them enough time to develop. But to Ryan's credit, her characters are intriguing enough that we want to see them develop. It occurred to me that they might have had a chance if she'd introduced them in the earlier one-act, which has more than enough room for them.
Although her theme--Troubled Youth Pursuing Answers--is a little shopworn, Ryan's straightforward story telling and her humor make these one-acts more than watchable. And despite the plays' many directionless, drunken youngsters in motorcycle jackets, director Edward Cheetham has wisely decided not to assault the audience with this pair of one-acts as though they were a double-barreled shotgun. His unobtrusive staging allows the audience to concentrate on the play, without having to worry whether or not an actor is going to spit on them. Looking closely at the cast you can detect a glimmer of idealism in their eyes, but it doesn't prevent them from delivering capable performances all around.
Maipayne Productions is a new company whose mission it is to eliminate "esoteric, pretentious "art."' And I must say it was refreshing to sit in Urbus Orbis's little performance space and not feel I was trapped in a nest of tortured, misunderstood souls.
For those of you who think that the Chicago flood merely made traveling difficult and selling T-shirts easy there's now A Deeper Water, a new one-act by Gordon Hoffman directed by Patrick New.
The flood provides the impetus for Beth (Heidi Ammon) and Reid (Tim Blevins), a pair of previously contented drones, to indulge in an existential free-fall. "There has to be more than saving for the condo, picking names for the kids, and rollerblading along the lake," they complain, prompted in some way by the absurd spectacle of mattresses being dragged into the river. They draw a parallel between the hole in the river and the hole their lives have fallen into: "When you're in the middle of it it's fine, but looking at it from the bridge it seems ridiculous." With their eyes now opened, they indulge in all sorts of irrational behavior. She quits her job. He struggles to justify his and takes up scuba diving. She brings home a homeless woman, ponders Sartre, and takes up the cello. They both question their purpose in life.
It's all very hard to swallow. The flood was such a cut-rate disaster that registering any reaction beyond annoyance seems contrived. Of course, it doesn't necessarily take a great disaster to prompt a flight of existentialism--it's not uncommon to question your existence when faced with a long line at the grocery store. But this rarely makes for an exciting play.
Blevins and Ammon perform valiantly despite the many technical blunders that plagued what should've been a very simple show to run. They achieve and sustain an interesting relationship between Beth and Reid. Ammon offers a dedicated, pleasant stage presence, and Blevins's off-the-cuff timing actually wrung some laughs from the material. But as good as the performances are, they can't disguise the fact that questions raised because you're forced to leave your office in the middle of a workday make for banal drama and dull comedy.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter D. Hynes.