Tough | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader
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Since its inception two years ago, the producers at Free Street Theater's PANG (Producing Arts for a New Generation) program have steered clear of presenting work that's overtly teen-centric. But they made a welcome exception in choosing Real People Theater, a student company created by Stephen Haff, a teacher at Brooklyn's Bushwick High School, whose students are mostly black and Latino. The troupe's calling card has traditionally been classic plays like Romeo and Juliet recast in contemporary street vernacular, and it's been successful enough to be adopted as the youth company in residence at New York's prestigious Wooster Group. But it jumps wholeheartedly into contemporary issues with its staging of Canadian playwright George F. Walker's 1992 one-act about teen pregnancy, Tough. Set in an inner-city playground, the play pits a young pregnant woman against her hapless boyfriend, with the questionable help of her hard-as-nails best friend. In Haff's staging (which deftly excises the overt Canadianisms of Walker's original script in favor of Puerto Rican accents and idioms), the desperate need and vulnerability of these three sharply drawn characters come through with poignancy and hilarity. Bobby, the blindsided father-to-be, wants to do the right thing without sacrificing the prerogatives of youth, which enrages his girlfriend, Tina. "You break down my heart, you diseased, brain-damaged sewer rat," she screams at him. What makes this production so compelling is the actors' apparent identification with their characters: flawed, defensive, but utterly honest kids on the cusp of adulthood. The performances deliver enough soul, guts, and heart to teach older actors a thing or three. Free Street, Pulaski Park, 1419 W. Blackhawk, 773-772-7248. Through April 19: Friday, 7 PM; Saturday, 5 PM. $10 or "pay what you can."

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