Chicago Theatre Review
The Source – Route 66 Theatre Company
John-Paul Sartre’s 1944 existentialist one-act, “No Exit,” locks three people in a room, which is eventually discovered to be the afterlife, and through their conversations and confrontations they discover one thing: Hell is other people. Contemporary playwright Gabriel McKinley has taken this concept, adapted it a bit and brought it into the socio-political arena of the 21st century.
WikiLeaks. Hacked email accounts. Secret CIA files revealed. Clandestine methods for bypassing or defeating encryption and antivirus security features. Prying eyes that furnish the news stories of the day are everywhere. It’s almost as if Gabriel McKinley’s one-act drama is the true life backstory behind our current news headlines. McKinley’s play couldn’t be timelier. Audiences will imagine that it might’ve actually been written this very day. In the program, the setting is listed as “A large foreign city. Now,” and it feels that way. It’s left up to the audience’s imagination to decide the actual, present-day locale in which this stylish, upscale hotel room is located (created with an eye for the smallest detail, by scenic designer Jack Magaw).
Vernon, a news writer, and Oona, a documentary filmmaker, are directed by an unknown source to fly to a specific location and check into a hotel room. They’re to assume the identity of a married couple, although neither Oona nor Vernon have ever met. The news story about which the two journalists are to become involved is based upon the leak of a series of secret government documents and information. Every detail of this big scoop is undisclosed and ambiguous, giving rise to a tension-filled story that unfolds like a mystery/thriller. Audiences will find themselves holding their collective breath and perched on the edge of their seats during the entire ninety minutes.
Chicago freelance director Jason Gerace navigates this world premiere with impressive care and concern. Raw Nerves become exposed through his expert guidance of a two-character play that spans seven days of mounting suspense. He mines every moment of his characters’ anxiety and apprehension, employing some fine technical support, provided by Clare Chrzan and Mark Comiskey, with their stunningly effective lighting and projection designs. Together these two theatre artists enhance the mood of impending terror. Add to this Christopher Kriz’s exceptionally designed original music and sound effects, such as a piercing fire alarm, and the stage is set for a superb psychological thriller.
Kristina Valada-Viars, who has impressed audiences with exciting performances in Theater Wit’s “The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence” and Writers Theatre’s “The Diary of Anne Frank,” creates another realistic, flesh-and-blood character. This time the actress plays a filmmaker, whose finest traits are her empathy and honesty. Oona seems tough and glib, when we first meet her. She’s accomplished and knowledgable, yet a bit old-fashioned. Oona isn’t a slave to social media and electronic devices, like her colleague, preferring instead snail mail and landline telephones. She’s a loner, an independent artist who’s proudly made a name for herself by capturing the world through the lens of her camera. But, through a very tense situation, this easy-going character turns into a tightly-wound woman; and Ms. Valada-Viars takes Oona on a journey of self-discovery revealing that she does, indeed, need others in her life.
Cody Proctor, an actor whose work has been enjoyed at such theatres as Strawdog, Sideshow, the Goodman and Chicago Shakespeare, plays Vernon. A seasoned, highly-respected newspaper journalist, Vernon believes he may be on the verge of something very big, a story that’ll finally put his name at the forefront of those in the know. The moment he arrives at the swanky hotel we can see he’s a professional at the top of his game. After changing rooms several times, so as to elude anyone who might be following him, Vernon’s finally settled in this suite. Meticulously checking every corner, Vernon satisfies himself that there are no prying cameras or secret recording devices hidden anywhere. However, when Oona arrives, the two find they’re a bad match. They’re complete opposites. The couple begin picking at and sparring with each other nonstop. Eventually Vernon reveals that he’s much more than simply a serious, by-the-rules kind of guy, as Oona believes. We finally spy the chinks in his protective, professional armor. And, as the days pass, and more information becomes revealed, we gradually behold a man losing control and coming to the end of his rope.
This thrilling journey is a 90-minute nightmare of what it means to be a journalist today. It’s a play based upon the reality that the media relies a great deal upon secret, often unknown sources, responsible for providing the leaks that are the basis for today’s news. But few of us fully understand and appreciate the inherent danger involved in such a career. We’ve come a long way from the journalism of “The Front Page.” Gabriel McKinley’s excellent new play, now in a magnificently thrilling production by Jason Gerace, is a testimony to the unseen heroes of today’s media wars. In their quest to be the first to break the news, these men and women discover there’s no exit.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 2-April 2 by Route 66 Theatre Company at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Den box office or by going to www.route66theatre.brownpapertickets.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.