Chicago Theatre Review
The Water is Deep in Steep Theatre’s ‘Wastewater’
Wastewater – Steep Theatre
A play of naked emotions and taught tensions, “Wastewater,” which is receiving its U.S. premiere at the always interesting Steep Theatre, is two-thirds of a great play, one that grows stronger as it progresses and ends on a breathless note.
Set in modern-day London, “Wastewater” – if you’ll pardon the pun – wastes little time on the perfunctoriness of most London-based fiction. Rather than the Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and other spectacular sites of the grand old city, “Wastewater” concerns itself with normal Londoners grappling with small (albeit momentous) choices. Foster care, daily expenses, the planning involved in catching a flight – such are the basic tenets of life that playwright Simon Stephens skillfully dramatizes on the stage, and in such venues as abandoned greenhouses, warehouses, and shabby hotel rooms…and all under the arcing shadow of Heathrow airport.
The action develops slowly across three long acts, each of which focuses on two characters. As I previously hinted, the first of the play’s acts is its weakest, a conversation between a mother and her foster son that, though touching in spots and engagingly acted by Melissa Riemer and Joel Boyd, is a touch too meandering for the start of the play. Names are dropped casually, plot threads are pursued and then abandoned, and the scene ends with little accomplished in way of plot or character development. Sure, elements are introduced that the latter two acts explore (including a central narrative thread that loosely connects the three acts), but Stephens, a wonderful talent with numerous accolades to his name, and Robin Witt, Steep’s very talented director, would do good to tighten the pacing.
The play’s latter two acts, though, are remarkable, even extraordinary at times. The second act, which concerns a fledgling affair between an art teacher (a vulnerable Nick Horst) and a police officer (a heartbreaking Kendra Thulin), is Stephens at his best, drama that captures the sad, disconnected, technologically embedded characters that populate our urban landscapes in the 21st century. And things only improve further with the play’s final act, which finds a former math instructor (Peter Moore) meeting with a representative from an underground adoption agency. The setup is, admittedly, a bit hard-boiled, but the act features the incendiary Caroline Neff in the role of the representative, and as is usual in a production featuring the remarkably talented Neff, her acting alone warrants a visit to Steep’s show. With an accent as thick as the London fog, thick heeled boots that create echoes through the small venue, and hand gestures of startling violence, the diminutive Neff creates an enormously threatening presence, one that believably has Moore – who is at least a foot taller – cowering in fear. It’s remarkable theater, and only furthers Neff’s already considerable talents.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through August 13 by Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 866-811-4111 or by going to www.steeptheatre.com.