Chicago Theatre Review
Prejudice Clouds Society’s Vision
Monster – Steppenwolf for Young Adults
Am I really a monster? That’s what 16-year-old Steve Harmon repeatedly asks himself. While this bright, creative young man awaits his trial, accused of murder, he wonders if what the world says about him is actually true. Society unfairly perceives Harmon as a monster, sheerly because he’s a young, urban black man. The boy’s fleeting acquaintance with a few really bad dudes has implicated him in this heinous crime, for which he has little hope of escaping.
Steve is an aspiring film maker, still a kid in high school, but who clearly has a bright career ahead of him. He sees the world through a moviemaker’s lens. He thinks of his life as a screenplay and sees the world, like a cinematographer, as a series of camera shots. This horribly traumatic event becomes a series of storyboard drawings (beautifully drawn in black & white by Finn Belknap). The soundtrack of his movie is the resonance and reverberations of his New York City surroundings. Steve’s teacher likes him and believes in the boy’s honesty and promising future. His mom and dad love him and his younger brother looks up to him. But the world around Steve Harmon has viciously labeled him a monster.
Aaron Carter’s faithful, beautifully adapted dramatic one-act captures the story and style of Walter Dean Myers’ 1999 prizewinning book. The author’s somewhat autobiographical story was one of the first young adult novels to feature an African American as the main character. Both the novel and Carter’s play powerfully address themes of race, peer pressure, bigotry, teenage crime and the subjectivity of truth. Under Hallie Gordon’s stunningly stark direction, the unbearable pain and panic Steve experiences is beautifully countered by the love and respect he receives from those around him who truly care. While the audience is constantly aware of the unrelenting horror Steve is facing, his life is intermittently tempered by his family’s affection. Even O’ Brien, Steve’s defending attorney who questions his innocence, and nicely played with urban sensibility and a brusque persona by Cheryl Graeff, eventually lets down her guard and unveils a brief moment of trust and regard.
But the real power of this story is Daniel Kyri. This astounding young actor, making his debut at Steppenwolf, has already been seen at Chicago Shakespeare, Lookingglass and Black Ensemble Theatre. But based upon this juvenile actor’s distinguished performance as Steve Harmon, he’s definitely got a promising career ahead of him. Kyri owns this story and charms the audience with his honest, heartfelt portrayal of a teenager whose life lies in the hands of society. Based on this performance alone, Daniel Kryi is a true winner.
The ensemble is comprised of seven extremely talented actors who seamlessly flow from one role to another. The magnificent Alana Arenas, a standout in everything she does, from “The Fundamentals” to “Marie Antoinette,” is touching, both as Steve’s mother and as fierce Sandra Petrocelli, the dedicated prosecuting attorney. Kenn E. Head is convincing, both as Steve’s father, who finds difficulty in expressing his love, and as Richard “Bobo” Evans, the immoral kingpin of the crime for which Steve is accused. Excellent young actor Namir Smallwood, who recently grabbed audiences’ attention in “East Texas Hot Links,” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” plays several roles, including 23-year-old James King, the other young man on trial for the same crime. Chris Rickett sensitively portrays Mr. Sawicki, Steve’s supportive film club teacher, contrasted nicely with his Asa Briggs, the tough defense attorney for King. Tevion Devin Lanier debuts at this theatre as Jerry, Steve’s adoring younger brother, as well as tough punk, Osvaldo Cruz. Ginneh Thomas nicely portrays the Judge and a librarian whose testimony is tainted by prejudice.
This outstanding production, directed with care and passion by Hallie Gordon, brings to life this powerful young adult novel by Walter Dean Myers. The play, faithfully adapted by Aaron Carter, is in a production that begs to be seen, not only by young audiences but by adults, as well. This 90-minute one-act is robust, concise and absolutely compelling. It speaks unflinchingly to audiences of all ages about how societal prejudice, especially toward young, African American men, still clouds our vision in the 21st century. Here’s a young man with potential and imagination, played by a terrific young actor, who, because he briefly associated with the wrong people, suffers for a crime he didn’t commit. But, in the end, after Steve Harmon’s world seems to crumble around him, it’s love and trust that ultimately triumph.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 17-March 9 by Steppenwolf for Young Adults in the Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.