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The Lure of the Exotic

Like her middle-class protagonist, playwright Mia McCullough unintentionally marginalizes the poor and people of color.

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SPARE CHANGE | STAGE LEFT THEATRE

Playwright Mia McCullough used to answer the crisis line at an Evanston shelter for battered women, and one day she received a curious call. A distraught man said he'd met a woman on the el a few weeks before who'd told him she was staying at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. That day he'd encountered her again, behaving like a different person and apparently turning tricks. He asked if McCullough thought it was the same woman and if there was something he should have done to help her. She had no answers for him. She couldn't tell him that he seemed to be describing one of the shelter's residents, a young mother whose mental state sometimes deteriorated unpredictably. And she didn't know what he could have done to help.

McCullough also wondered what was really behind the caller's apparent altruism. As she writes, she considered whether it was another case of "the white man help[ing] the poor 'colored' girl." That was the germ of Spare Change, receiving its world premiere in a sharp, efficient staging by Stage Left. What responsibility, McCullough asks, do privileged whites have toward underprivileged nonwhites in their community? Why are poor nonwhites imagined to be needier than poor whites? Is a multiracial victim of domestic violence an exoticized poster child for today's "white man's burden"? But though McCullough aims to attack thorny issues of race and class politics, the play's strong suit is the intense, conflict-ridden relationship she creates between a middle-class couple.

When financial planner Brad, who hates his job but enjoys his fat paycheck, gets stuck on the el after a suicidal man jumps in front of the train, the young, ethnically indeterminate stranger seated next to him asks him to talk to her to ward off the panic attack she feels coming on. Michael Ann says she's staying in a west-side shelter with her two children, having fled an abusive boyfriend in Oregon, and if she doesn't get back to the shelter before curfew she and her kids may be kicked out. Brad offers her the takeout Chinese he's bringing home to his wife--and tells her she has pretty skin.

That night Brad has an exhausting fight with his stern, impatient advertising exec wife, Claire, who argues among other things that it was selfish of someone to kill himself in front of a rush hour train. Later Brad calls a domestic-violence hotline hoping to reach the shelter where Michael Ann is staying, telling himself he just wants to let the people in charge know she has a legitimate reason for returning late. In the first of many noncredible moments, Brad reaches a hotline worker who sharply reprimands him for nearly giving Michael Ann's name to her, though there would be no conceivable repercussions if he had. The worker insists that if he calls other shelters to deliver the same message, he'll put Michael Ann at risk of being kicked out.

Brad becomes fixated not only on helping Michael Ann but on giving up his corporate job for a career in social service. But Claire belittles his desire to construct a more meaningful, less financially sound life; unbeknownst to him, she's pregnant and wants to raise their child in the suburbs. When Brad runs into Michael Ann again on the el and she solicits him for sex, he brings her home. Whether he wants to help her or sleep with her--or both--remains unclear, since Claire walks in on them before much can happen.

As Claire and Brad tear into each other, their plans for domestic bliss compromised by Brad's newfound social conscience, McCullough gives satisfying dramatic complexity to the play's most intriguing question: whether an upper-middle-class retreat into domesticity and child rearing is essentially a withdrawal from social engagement. It's the play's real through line; McCullough puts Claire and Brad in crisis mode from the get-go. Their opening scene, as they prepare to leave for work, is tense since Claire takes umbrage at just about everything Brad says. Of course it's the wrong day for anything to come between these people, and as McCullough piles on stressors, the disjunct between Brad's need for civil responsibility and Claire's for responsibility to her family becomes increasingly obvious. Director Ann Filmer wisely keeps actors Cat Dean and Kevin Heckman focused solely on what the characters need from each other even as misunderstandings and miscommunications subvert their every effort to find common ground.

Compared to the domestic scenes, the rest of Spare Change feels weak. Michael Ann's predicament is underdeveloped--and it's odd that her genuine struggle for survival lacks the urgency of Claire and Brad's bourgeois crisis. McCullough's reliance on contrivances, including three "chance encounters" on the el, further undermines the story's reality. So does the vague metaphorical significance she attempts to give some of the dialogue: when Michael Ann accepts fortune cookies from Brad, she insists that he keep the fortunes because "they were meant for you." Kurt Sharp's living room set, which consumes the whole stage, doesn't provide much flexibility for the play's numerous locations: when Brad takes Michael Ann to the emergency room, it looks as if Claire is sitting in the waiting room even though we learn later that she was supposed to be at home.

Because of the play's fundamental imbalance, Michael Ann's situation is more exploited than explored. Seen in relatively brief glimpses, she stalks the periphery of the action, less a full character than a catalyst for the disruption of middle-class life. McCullough might have intended to dramatize the way people of privilege shore up their identities by categorizing those less fortunate as "other," but ultimately she reinforces that marginalizing impulse.

Through 11/3: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield, 773-883-8830, $20-$25.

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