Zealous Guy | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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at Cafe Voltaire

Actor James Thorn explained things to me over the phone. "Some people have to accept the fact that they're gay. It's a singular decision that will greatly impact the rest of their lives. I faced a similar decision." A graduate of the University of Iowa, Thorn practiced as an attorney for four years in Chicago and Arizona, until one day he woke up and said, "That's it. I'm out of the closet. I'm an actor." He returned to Iowa City and, starry-eyed, helped found the Midwest Center for Developing Artists, driv-ing a cab to support himself.

What a boon to Chicago theatergoers that he's resettled here (working as a temp paralegal!), and that his exquisite artistry is currently on display once a week at Cafe Voltaire in Frederik Norberg's one-man play Saved. Thorn plays Dr. Ignatius Lodge, a junior theologian addressing the World Symposium on Metaphysics and Religion. Unfortunately his address--"Belief in the Divine"--has been scheduled at the same time as the conference's main-draw lecture, "Adam and the Black Hole," resulting in a decidedly poor turnout for Lodge. Undaunted, he tells us that we will experience epiphany through him. "This is not a place for dry statistics and hair spray," he boasts.

It seems that Dr. Lodge has found Jesus Christ. "Literally," he adds. Lodge, a jocular stuffed shirt of a lecturer, had a vision of Christ after his first hump in an Iowa cornfield. ("I felt a need to put my hands on her hips and move them in a vaguely circular motion," he confesses.) After a second vision, he claims, "Jesus has to be real because he appeared in my bathroom." For those in the audience still dubious, he shouts, "You can run from me, but you can't run from Jesus, and he lives in Ohio!"

Norberg, who once attended the University of Iowa himself, has written an hour-long play as ridiculous as it is touching. Lodge is a deftly drawn parody of a religious zealot so cut off from his own life that he can talk about it only in manufactured, hopelessly inadequate metaphors. Trying to describe the great love of his life, for example, he begins, "She had a body like..." After an excruciatingly long pause, he finishes with "like refined metal." At the same time Norberg gives Lodge a big, delicate heart, easily wounded by everything from the disappearance of his one-night-stand girlfriend to the poor attendance at his lecture.

As Saved progresses it becomes painfully obvious that Lodge confuses the slightest hint of affection with a religious experience. His isolation from everything and everyone makes him a truly pathetic figure, as he unconsciously reveals in an Anouilh-like declaration. "Don't cuddle a crying child," he admonishes. "Let him alone so that he will learn that he is alone and nothing can ever help him."

Thorn has absorbed Norberg's script so thoroughly that he rarely seems to be acting at all. With the exception of a few tortured moments when he gets a bit mawkishly bottled up, Thorn tosses off complicated, carefully nuanced lines with effortless grace. He begins in perfect imitation of an overprepared public speaker, every pause meticulously engineered for maximum effect. But slowly, inevitably, he unravels until he's snarling at his listeners like a lion ready to pounce. Like all great comedic actors, Thorn is able to put himself through enormous but nearly instantaneous emotional swings, lashing out ferociously, then smiling serenely two seconds later. And unlike most solo actors, Thorn not only genuinely addresses and includes his audience but also traces a clear trajectory through his material. He always knows where he's headed, keeping his play and his audience right on track.

Thorn deserves sold-out houses, yet a sparse audience is perfect for Saved. There were only five of us there when I saw it, and Thorn in-geniously exploited this fact by walking about the room, cringing when his jokes got no laughs, speaking to each of us directly from time to time as though desperate to convince himself that his tiny audience was listening. In fact, Thorn admitted after the show that he prefers performing this piece to small houses. So if you go, try to make yourself inconspicuous.

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