A washed-up pawnbroker destroys the life of a young girl in TUTA’s Gentle | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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A washed-up pawnbroker destroys the life of a young girl in TUTA’s Gentle

Zeljko Djukic adapts and directs a bleak story by Dostoevsky.

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An adaptation of the Dostoevsky short story variously translated as "A Gentle Creature," "The Gentle Woman," and "The Meek One," Gentle, the latest from TUTA Theatre (the acronym stands for "The Utopian Theatre Asylum"), is an examination of hurt male pride. It concerns a washed-up pawnbroker (Tom Dacey Carr) who, sensing himself a victim in life's grand scheme, marries a desperate girl with few other options (Dani Tucker). Adapter-director Zeljko Djukic's version is emotionally canny, with an especially effective performance by Tucker, who can say more with a trembling eyebrow than the depraved pawnbroker ever manages to convey in incessant monologues.

The pawnbroker meets the innocent girl one day in his shop, where she has come in prepared to part with the family icon: a Madonna and child, set against a gilt background in the archaic Byzantine style, whose frame alone is worth good money. The sacred painting's beauty triggers an urge in the pawnbroker to possess the object for himself in order to defile it somehow. Just this is what he proceeds to do with the girl, first charming her with a few off-the-cuff quotations from Goethe, then all but buying her from her two evil aunts, who'd been planning to marry her off to a truck driver. Once married to the girl, the pawnbroker goes on to ruin her delicate health through icy neglect and silence, shutting her up in the two rooms they share above his barely respectable shop with only a maid, Lukerya (the skillful and moving Lauren Demerath), to keep her company. Throughout, the pawnbroker—anticipating and dismissing the audience's incredulity—insists that it's the dying girl, not he, who's the tyrant in their relationship. "Oh, the irony of fate!" he exclaims. Naturally, our sympathies are firmly with the real victim.

But there's a flaw in the presentation of this harrowing story as a work of theater, one common to many adaptations that strive to be "literary": the protagonist simply does too much talking. In the short story it's understood that these diatribes are someone's thoughts—unspoken and all too often unspeakable. Here large swaths of the pawnbroker's incessant recrimination and self-analysis are reproduced wholesale, and given voice, they only generate awkwardness, as time and again the pawnbroker interrupts a scene with his young wife to square himself downstage and expound on his philosophy: "We are cursed, we are all cursed (myself especially)." The melodrama contrasts with the production's minimalist design: Kurtis Boetcher's set is almost completely white, with blank cabinet doors along the wall that contain the pawnbroker's till and his small library. Keith Parham's lighting design is a tour de force, shrouding the front of Carr's face in dim rim light so that the fiendish pawnbroker appears most in the dark, most sinister, at the very lip of the stage.  v

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