Chicago Theatre Review
Why Did I Ever Leave Ohio?
Jack’s back and he’s talking some smack. Returning home to the Cincinnati house where he grew up, Jack’s bizarre, rapid stream-of-conscious late night conversation with Lorna makes audiences, and his younger sister, wonder what he’s on? Clearly this jittery, fidgety, often funny-sounding young man is high on something. Both Lorna, his mother Barbara and his best friend Phil suspect that Jack may be in some kind of trouble. It turns out he’s just exhilarated by the crime he’s recently committed.
While working as a banker in New York City with Jenny, his recently divorced, status-obsessed wife of seven years, Jack discovered that an enormous amount of money simply lay dormant in the accounts of thousands of deceased citizens. Without anyone else laying claim to these funds the money seemed to be simply waiting for someone else to take notice. As a result, Jack stole 27 million dollars from the bank and has come back home to share his new-found wealth with his family and friends.
Prolific novelist, screenwriter and playwright (“Seminar,” “Mauritius”), Theresa Rebeck’s comedy played on Broadway in 2012 for only a few months before closing. This Chicago premier, which launches Step Up Production’s new season, should find a better future, because it’s directed with fierce sprightliness and logical immediacy by Jason Gerace (whose production of “Great Expectations,” among other productions, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this young man knows how to make a play sing). Mr. Gerace demonstrates his understanding of this comic drama by keeping his actors totally immersed in both the story and one another and, in what could’ve become a static production in lesser hands, almost in constant motion.
Played inches away from the audience, Eric Broadwater’s authentic Midwestern kitchen setting is a realistic-looking room that allows its inhabitants freedom to move about while telling their story. His scene provides all kinds of details about these characters, as well. Audiences will recognize this kind of space from their own homes. Barbara, Jack’s mother, is a simple, direct and clean woman, as exhibited by her pure, uncluttered taste in this bright room. She obviously enjoys collecting knickknacks, like salt-n-pepper shakers and festive “painted plates,” which Broadwater displays prominently. The coffeemaker is practical and supplies the family with caffeine and, thanks to Austin Kopsa’s diligence as prop master, there’s also a bounty of food for the characters to enjoy, like ice cream, pizza and cheese Coney dogs.
Steve O’Connell (so terrific in BoHo’s “Amadeus”) is mesmerizing as Jack. The sheer intensity with which the actor assaults this role seems exhausting. Mr. O’Connell simply shakes with the fervor of someone who knows he’s successfully duped the establishment and is overwhelmed by the possibilities the future holds for him and his immediate family. His speech, which is machine gun rapid-fire most of the time, portrays a man whose mind is racing with more thoughts than he can verbalize. The actor’s interaction with his younger sister Lorna, played with dignity and command by Emily Tate, recalls the friendly combativeness found in most real sibling relationships. Resembling a young Valerie Bertinelli, Ms. Tate’s outward self-assured bravado cleverly belies the boredom and frustration Lorna feels at being stuck at home caring for her aging parents. Together this pair of thespians make a powerful team.
Bradford R. Lund, genuinely casual and breezy as best buddy Phil, provides a fresh perspective on events from an outsider whose honesty, love and care for his friends is sincere. Phil’s contrasted by Elizabeth Antonucci as Jack’s estranged wife, Jenny. She suddenly arrives at the family home, unannounced and unwanted with a bone to pick. Jenny, however, provides the important information necessary for the family and the audience to comprehend the gravity of Jack’s crime. Ms. Antonucci carries with her the sophistication and moxie of a Manhattanite on the prowl. Millie Hurley, such a wholesome, sincere, welcome delight in any show she’s in, makes Barbara a matriarch who’s easily loved and respected. True, Barbara’s middle class morality and staunch Catholic beliefs sometimes provoke debate and even laughter, but as Ms. Hurley plays this mother and wife honestly as a loving, caring woman intently devoted to her family.
With honest affection, manic energy and filled with laughter, Theresa Rebeck’s comedy is being given a very polished treatment in this Chicago premier. Jason Gerace brings his expertise to a production that creates a sincere portrait of a family struggling with all the usual kinds of problems. However, when an illness, a crime and the return of the Prodigal Son throw a wrench into their idyllic Midwestern life, a family and their friends rally together to empathize and support each other. Perhaps none of these problems would’ve occurred if only Jack had never left Ohio.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 4-November 2 by Step Up Productions at the Den Theatre Mainstage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-316-8255 or by going to www.stepupproductions.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.