Chicago Theatre Review
An Overview of Immigration
In To America – Griffin Theatre Company
Playwright Bill Massolia spent a good deal of time meticulously researching and poetically assembling this epic, all-encompassing overview of the American immigration experience. Directed with precision and compassion by Dorothy Milne, with expert assistance provided by dialect coach Adam Goldstein, this sometimes sad, often tragic and occasionally humorous hundred-minute one-act presentation tells the stories of dozens of men, women and children who bravely traveled here to begin a new life.
While many of these valiant, real life individuals came to these unknown shores on their own accord, a large number of them were brought here against their will. They were uprooted from their homes and families, chained and tortured as slaves or treated less than humanely as indentured servants. While Massolia’s world premiere drama isn’t exactly a play, in the conventional sense, this collection of monologues, delivered directly to the audience by a company of thirteen talented actors, relates snippets of a myriad of true stories. They were gleaned from the letters, personal journals and diaries, newspaper accounts and oral histories of the actual immigrants portrayed in this intensely moving performance piece.
Griffin Theatre’s informational playbill does more than simply providing the names of the dozens of creative individuals who brought this production from page to stage. Someone spent a lot of time and energy explaining the playwright’s process in creating this work, as well as detailing, in a nutshell, the essence of the immigrant experience. The program also includes a simplified, three-page Timeline of U.S. Policy on Immigration, listing significant government acts and regulations that were passed, from 1790 through 2001. It all makes for interesting reading, both before and after seeing this production.
The cast is excellent. Within only a few lines of dialogue, each actor creates a complete, three-dimensional character, made even more realistic by Brock Alter’s informational projections displayed against, what appear to be, the sails of a schooner, in Joe Schermoly’s creative scenic design. Rachel Sypniewski’s simple, yet effective earth tone costumes help to ground these characters, while providing each with an individual period look. Ms. Milne maintains the necessary dignity for each character’s story and keeps their tales clear, understandable and moving with appeal and energy.
The gifted, multi-ethnic cast includes the talents of Juanita Andersen, Katie Campbell, Jennifer Cheung, Rasika Ranganathan, Elizabeth Hope Williams and a especially terrific performance by Chicago newcomer, Anesia Hicks. The wonderful gentlemen of the company include Cisco Lopez, Adam Marcantoni, Omer Abbas Salem, Scott Shimizu, Jason Vonrohn and, especially impressive portrayals by Sean McGill and Christopher W. Jones. The entire troupe deserves acknowledgement for their ability to morph seamlessly from character to character. The only disappointment is that all the roles are performed in isolation; while other actors sometimes provide background, none of the characters speak to or shares their scene with each other. While each story is fascinating, this style of presentation eventually becomes predictable and a little static.
William Massolia’s scholarly and stimulating presentation of the history, pain, joys and sorrows of the American immigration experience is moving, sometimes exciting and occasionally peppered with humor. The vast number of people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds who the audience will come to know is impressive, often overwhelming but never boring. From the prehistoric people who crossed the land bridge to reach this continent, to the many peoples who fled to these shores because of religious persecution or to secure a better way of life; from the thousands of men, women and children brought to America against their will, then bought and sold as property, to those with no hope for any kind of life other than to indenture themselves into servitude, this is an educational and entertaining evening of theatre.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 18-April 23 by Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre’s Main Stage, 1323 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 866-811-4111 or by going to www.griffintheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.