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Chicago Theater Review: New Plays Tackle Timely Topics

Variety logo Variety 2/21/2017 Steven Oxman
© Provided by Variety

Genocide, terrorism, a massacre, and police violence: Those are the not-so-cheery but exceptionally topical catalysts of four new plays opening within weeks of each other and continuing simultaneously around Chicago.

Three of the works qualify as ripped-from-the-headlines, even if their inspirations can’t be pinpointed to a specific news story.  “Faceless” at Northlight Theater depicts the trial of a teenage girl recruited over the internet to join ISIS; at the Gift Theater, Mona Mansour’s “Unseen” unravels the mystery of a conflict photographer who can’t remember how she ended up unconscious at the scene of a massacre in Istanbul;  and Teatro Vista’s  production of the newest play by Ike Holter (“Hit the Wall,” “Exit Strategy”), “Wolf at the End of the Block,” investigates the potential police beating of a Latino man.

But unexpectedly, it’s a mostly historical drama, “The Book of Joseph” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, that resonates in the current moment with overpowering force.

At first, the new play by Karen Hartman’s (“Roz and Ray”) seems a relatively straightforward epistolary reconstruction of one Jewish family’s history during the Holocaust. Author Richard Hollander (played by Francis Guinan) promotes his book (a real one, called “Every Day Lasts a Year”), in which he collected the letters between his father Joseph and Joseph’s family in occupied Poland during the Holocaust.

As he relates the story, the characters come to life before us, starting with a scene of enormous, understated power: In the 1930s, Joseph (Sean Fortunato) has attained visas for his entire extended family to go to Portugal, and he tries to convince them that that they need to depart Poland immediately — Hitler’s army is approaching.  The response: why don’t we wait and see what happens?  It still seems unlikely it could get that bad.  The dramatic irony overflows — the audience wants to scream in support of Joe’s plea.  But nearly all his family decides to stay, and it gets worse than they ever could have imagined.

Even Joseph and his wife’s journey doesn’t go smoothly.  Not allowed to enter Portugal, they wind up unwelcome refugees at Ellis Island, where they’re told they can’t stay.  They appeal.  They’re rejected.  They appeal again, living with a sense of dread but knowing they are better off than those in Poland, who send letters in carefully couched language — to evade the Nazi censors — about the deteriorating conditions there.

Playing out amidst the immediate chaos of President Trump’s ban on refugees, the relevance of this story, portrayed without sentimentality by a superb cast under the direction of Barbara Gaines, couldn’t be more potent.

Hartman turns the tables in the second act.  Richard’s son Craig (Adam Wesley Brown), also a historian, accuses his father of filling in blanks with interpretation he can’t be certain of, such as that very first scene we saw.  We learn, too, that Richard had actually found the letters in a suitcase after his father’s death, but did nothing with them for decades.  During that time, the people who could have filled in those blanks died.  What had begun as a story about confronting the past morphs to take in the story of ignoring it.

Issues of interpretation and perspective play key roles in the Chicago plays that are more contemporary in their setting, too.

In “Faceless,” teenager Susie Glenn (Lindsay Stock) stands trial for terrorism-related charges, after meeting a man online who helped her convert to Islam and recruited her to join ISIS.  But the charges themselves are not playwright Selina Fillinger’s primary interest. She focuses instead on the battle of narratives: Neither prosecution nor defense pursue truth, but an interpretation of the events that will be most convincing to a jury.  Susie’s defense attorney wants to take advantage of how innocent Susie seems — she is young, white, blonde, and ill-informed about the world — ignoring the fact that she is also unrepentant.  The prosecutor recruits a young Muslim lawyer who wears a hijab, Claire Fathi (Susaan Jamshidi), to lead the presentation of the case.  Knowing full well she is being chosen for symbolic purposes, Claire ultimately agrees she can best serve to convict a terrorist while keeping the highly publicized trial from further demonizing her religion.

Fillinger is a recent college grad who found her senior project unexpectedly picked up for full production at Northlight.  “Faceless” has rough edges aplenty, and the production could be more creative and better refined. But the play works on several levels, and Fillinger’s sophisticated character development and sharp dialogue mark her as a significant young talent. Both Susie and Claire become more and more dimensional as the play goes on, as the story evolves into one dealing with deep personal questions of faith.

The other two plays have powerful moments even if they don’t fully satisfy.  In “Unseen,” conflict photographer Mia (Brittany Burch) awakens at her girlfriend’s Istanbul apartment, not remembering how she got there.  Against the pleas of her girlfriend and mother to rest, she rushes out to piece together the events.  The play never quite works either as a mystery or as a personal or political drama, but it interestingly portrays how documenting horrendous events requires the reporter to see without fully seeing.  Let down that emotional guard, and self-protection gives way to unmanageable despair.

With fake news on everyone’s lips these days, the role of questionable journalism makes “Wolf at the End of the Block” feel especially current.  After being beaten by a policeman, Abe (Gabriel Ruiz) gains the aid of reporter Frida (Sandra Marquez) to tell his story, and she doesn’t seem to mind too much that apparently, Abe is purposefully leaving out key facts.  As with Chicago’s three other topical plays at the moment, truth remains elusive.

The central narrative in “Wolf,” however, isn’t as compelling as what occurs on the periphery. In a terrific sequence, Abe’s friend is approached by an outwardly amiable man at a bar, but during the conversation begins to suspect he may be speaking with the man who beat up Abe. Holter very effectively captures the sense of confusing unease that emerges when you aren’t sure whether someone is friend or foe — when you need to balance two competing potential realities, one of which is deeply threatening.

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