Chicago Theatre Review
A Thunderstorm of Emotions
The Downpour – Route 66 Theatre
Sadly, there are many people with health concerns. Some are physical but many are mental. The wide range of mental health conditions collectively referred to as mental illness include disorders that affect a person’s mood, thinking and behavior. And although a mental disorder can make an individual miserable and cause problems in her work and/or relationships, today most symptoms can be managed with a combination of medication and counseling. Playwright and television screenwriter Caitlin Parrish (“A Twist of Water,” “Under the Dome”) has crafted a beautiful, gut-wrenching play that examines the effects of mental illness, not only on the patient but on her loved ones.
Route 66 Theatre has made a name for itself as a company devoted to developing, producing and ultimately exporting new works for the stage. Their most recent production, which is receiving its world premier in Lincoln Park, is explosive, often terrifying and, in the final moments, offers understanding and a promise of comfort.
Hazel, a single, young university instructor and successful writer of children’s novels, has taken a year sabbatical to move from Syracuse to be closer to Robin, the beloved older sister who essentially raised her. Robin works for the same Chicago law firm as her gentle, loving husband, Fred. At their small gathering, which also includes Miller, Fred’s longtime policeman buddy, Robin and Fred announce that they’re expecting their first child. Hazel’s reaction to this news is unexpected and causes a rift between the sisters that is, at first, quite puzzling. However, the audience gradually discovers that, as children, these young women suffered from years of life-threatening physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their mentally ill mother. Hidden secrets and unspoken lies are eventually revealed when, following the baby’s birth, it’s frighteningly obvious that Robin has inherited her mother’s sickness. Knives, flowers and thunderstorms all play a part in a drama that unfolds like a mystery thriller, but offers an abundance of heart and a deluge of emotion.
Working side-by-side once again with this talented playwright (as she did with “A Twist of Water”), Erica Weiss has done a masterful job of bringing Ms. Parrish’s work to life. Expertly guiding her four actors toward growth and discovery, especially her two talented actresses, the play gently unfolds, subtly leaving hints that foreshadow the unsettling events to come. Ms. Weiss’ smart, sensitive direction, sharp focus and a natural pacing enhance the effortless work of her actors. Especially excellent are Ms. Weiss‘ transitions between scenes, which act like a slow fade between incidents.
Brian Sidney Bembridge has designed a beautiful home in which these characters can tell their story. Filling the tiny Greenhouse studio space, the set is like a real house and it reflects the owners’ upscale lifestyle. The rooms are sparsely, yet tastefully, decorated. Fine details, such as a realistic, solid front entryway, rooms arranged logically and appropriately chosen artwork that accent the onstage space, all make Bembridge’s gorgeous stage set seem oddly familiar.
Although the play offers a delicate balance between its four characters, lovely Caroline Neff as Hazel seems to have a slight edge. In many ways, it’s her story and the road that takes Hazel from possessive younger sister with a chip on her shoulder to a caring, loving young woman filled with empathy and understanding is a very bumpy one. Ms. Neff is one of those Chicago actresses who, it seems, can play any role; and although she’s been seen on many area stages, she’s still very much a work in progress who’s constantly evolving.
As Robin, Brenda Barrie goes through the most unbelievable changes of any character in this play. It’s a tribute to this talented actress, making her Route 66 debut, that this pretty, yuppie, career mother-to-be so subtly and completely transforms within the course of two acts. Ms. Barrie’s journey in this play is, without a doubt, the most awesome to achieve and difficult to appreciate.
Peter Moore walks a fine line as Fred. Played with sensitivity and romance, the devotion he demonstrates to his wife and his best friend, through good times and bad, are admirable and believable. When Fred finally breaks down the audience witnesses a good man’s fall from grace as a devoted husband, a loving father and a best friend. It’s a sad, very finely-played moment created by a skilled actor. Stef Tovar is Miller, the best buddy. He’s almost like family but with the freedom to leave when and if he wants. The thing is, especially as played by this talented actor, Miller would never think of abandoning his friends. Mr. Tovar is always honest and reliable in every role he undertakes. His tough cop is a real human being. Divorced but still devoted to his adolescent daughter, Miller is a man acknowledging his past mistakes and still constantly trying to become a better person. Miller’s relationship with Fred, Robin and Hazel undergoes several changes during the course of the play, but Mr. Tovar is remains genuine throughout.
With mental health ever in the forefront of daily news, Caitlin Parrish’s new drama is timely and important. It speaks of secrets hidden behind the closed doors of big cities and small towns, of people in unspeakable pain from afflictions no one else knows about or understands. Erica Weiss and her small cast of beautifully talented, honest, empathetic actors have created an evening of theatre that’s both illuminating and entertaining. The emotional storm falling nightly on that tiny Greenhouse stage results in a flood of unexplored feelings for the cast and audience, alike.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 10-October 12 by Route 66 Theatre Company at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person or by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.greenhousetheater.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.