Chicago Theatre Review
Indulgent Second Act Mars Brilliant ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’
Pilgrims Progress – A Red Orchid Theatre
By the time you read this opening sentence, you are no doubt aware that “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the world-premiere play by Brett Neveu that opens A Red Orchid Theatre’s 2015-2016 season, stars the immensely talented Michael Shannon, a founding member of Red Orchid who has catapulted from the Chicago stage to high-profile roles in “The Man of Steel,” “99 Homes,” “Take Shelter,” and other films that have assured his ranks among the upper echelon of actors today.
That is the reason that “Pilgrim’s Progress” was essentially sold out before opening night, but audience members who attend Red Orchid’s immaculately executed play expecting a mere showcase for Shannon’s skills – although he is at his masterful best – are due for a surprise, as “Progress” is undoubtedly one of the strangest plays I have seen on a Chicago stage, a supremely eccentric, whip-smart sojourn into madness that slowly morphs into something much more horrifying.
Taking place over Thanksgiving Day in modern times, “Progress” follows the increasingly violent antics of the McKee family, which is composed of father Jim (Shannon), an actor and theater professor; mother Melissa (the dynamic Kirsten Fitzgerald), a psychotherapist and fledgling polymath with hair and clothing of a fading hippy; daughter Rania (Charlotte Mae Ellison), a very pregnant high school senior; and son Desmond (Ryan Bourque), a college student in earth soils prone to long, rhapsodic speeches on the merits of the earth.
They make for a supremely quirky bunch, and that’s only the half of it. The principle action of the play revolves around plans for the day’s festivities, which entail traveling to the house of a (resented) colleague of Jim’s for dinner and socializing. Nothing, it turns out, is easy for the McKee family, because it conducts its affairs by contract. Whether it be the uttering of despised nicknames, reminiscing about embarrassing episodes of the past, or planning the day’s events, the family governs by contract, drawing up papers with amendments, sub-contracts, and repercussions for violations – and only when all signatures are collected and observed can the family move forward with its plans.
In the gifted hands of Brett Neveu (and the direction of the superlative Shade Murray), the family spins a meandering, often hilarious yarn before signing that Thanksgiving contract at the end of the first act. Words pour fourth from the actors’ mouths in torrents – if not blasts – of sounds and references and anecdotes, with copious amounts of obscenities doused on top. Whether it be quoting Brecht and Jung, hypothesizing on the nature of television, or recounting what is surely the most violent, absurdly hilarious performance of “The Glass Menagerie” ever performed, the first act of “Pilgrim’s Progress” is a true whirlwind, a locomotive of surreal comedy and postmodern linguistics that dares the audience to keep up.
Which is why the show’s second act is so deflating. At one point in that act, Shannon’s Jim references the main conceit of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” a play that concludes, after two-and-a-half hours of ceaseless screaming, cruelty, and pretentious role playing, with the discovery that the old, bitter couple’s son never did in fact exist, and the play’s whole stage of cruelty was due to their inability to have children. “Progress,” regrettably, ends with a similarly emphatic twist, and Neveu is clearly influenced by Albee’s indulgent scream-fest, packing the second act with dramatic reveals, elongated speeches, and moments of role-playing and meta theater. It’s all exceedingly well done and masterfully performed, but not a single moment of it rings true. It becomes theater for theater’s sake, the kind that you admire for being so well executed and thoughtfully assembled, but ultimately walk away feeling hollow towards.
But in the end, “Pilgrim’s Progress” is unlike anything on a Chicago stage right now, and that alone is reason enough to recommend it. Was I moved? Not necessarily. But was I entertained, challenged, exhausted? Certainly.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Running through Dec. 13 by A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells Street, Chicago, IL 60610
Tickets are available by calling 312-943-8722 or by visiting http://www.aredorchidtheatre.org
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.