Chicago Theatre Review
The Impossibility of Forgiveness
Late Company – Cor Theatre
Teenagers are a unique species. They’re always exploring their world, testing the waters, challenging authorities and expressing themselves to show the everyone who they are. Up in their bedrooms they’re on their cell phones and exploring the internet. They’re filming YouTube videos about themselves and posting them for the world to see. But, for every teenager stretching his creative ability, there’s another kid out there criticizing and making fun of him. Bullying has grown so incredibly out of control that a fragile young person can be virally tortured so mercilessly that suicide may feel like his only way out.
Following the 2011 suicide of the teenaged son of a local city councillor, young Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill responded to the tragedy by writing this play. In his 70-minute drama the writer goes beyond the self-inflicted death of a gay high school boy, and imagines an evening sometime after the event, a night of proposed forgiveness between the two families involved.
There are six places set at the table, but only five people will be seated. Debora, an amateur North Shore artist, and her local politician husband, Michael, have invited Tamara, her husband Bill and their son Curtis to their home for a late night dinner. The two mothers, particularly Debora, are hoping that a heartfelt admission of guilt and a sincere expression of remorse from Curtis, for his part in driving Joel to suicide, will lay a foundation toward forgiveness and some element of closure.
Both boys attended the same high school. However, Curtis and Joel weren’t friends. Instead, he and his buddies mercilessly ridiculed and bullied Joel for the flamboyant ways he flaunted his gay lifestyle. Finally Joel could no longer endure the constant derision and he ended his young life in despair. During the dinner party, Debora reads to Curtis and his family a long letter in which she pours out her heart over the loss of her only child. She’s asked Curtis to write his own letter of confession and penitence; but, after Curtis reads his missive, Debora is unconvinced of the boy’s sincerity. Tension between the two couples and between husband and wife, which have been building all evening, finally explode. Up to the emotionally overloaded final moments of the play, all good intensions are destroyed and any hope for forgiveness and reconciliation are lost.
The evening begins on shaky grounds and grows progressively worse. Tiers of hypocrisy tumble away, deeply buried marital problems surface between both husbands and wives. Differences in parenting styles spark additional rifts between the families. Admissions of absence, ignorance and neglect prompt tempers to flare with guilt. Social media becomes the focus and no one is immune to the effects it has everyone’s life.
Under Jessica Fisch’s sensitive, finely nuanced guidance, this talented freelance director has orchestrated an intimate story of tragedy and reconciliation that hits hard. It’s a frightening play, a story of confrontation and good intentions gone awry. But the director has staged Tannahill’s one-act in a tiny, intimate venue, seating the audience on either side of the playing area and never more than a few feet away from the actors. And what incredibly talented actors they are who inhabit these roles!
Cor artistic director Tosha Fowler magnificently plays sophisticated Debora, at first with obvious, bottled-up and tortured restraint, and later with all the ferocity of Medea. Her sole intent is revenge, to punish Curtis and his family for what’s happened, to make them experience the pain she’s feeling in losing her son. As Michael, Debora’s sometimes clueless, often absent politician husband, Paul Fagen is excellent. His desperation in trying to paint a portrait of Joel, a son he barely knew or understood, is palpable. Michael has collected a box of mementos, all representing highlights from his son’s life, and proceeds to pass them around the table for Curtis’ family to see. But, despite being a seasoned politician, Fagen’s Michael often lacks his wife’s ability to verbally express his pain and grief.
Asia Jackson is transcendent as Tamara. From the moment Tamara arrives she’s the calming influence in this volatile gathering. She’s the voice of reason and understanding among the adults. But when Debora attacks Curtis, Tamara does an about-face, becoming a raging lioness while defending her son. Crushed as she is by what Curtis and his friends have done, Tamara still loves her son and will protect him at all costs. Tony Bozzuto, playing Tamara’s outspoken husband Bill, is also excellent. He’s the brash, quick-tempered, no-nonsense husband and father, eager to point out Michael’s mistakes and weaknesses, although he harbors several of his own. Although both fathers are strong and deal with this tragic event in their own way, the play belongs to the two mothers.
And, mostly quiet and wary, Matthew Elam’s Curtis silently watches, observing everyone else around him. He acknowledges his guilt regarding the part he played in this horrendous event, but he’s also frightened of the repercussions he may experience during this awkward, tense dinner party. Sulky, angry and uncomfortable, Curtis is in enemy territory here and he can’t predict the outcome. But Elam’s big moment comes at the very end of the play and he brings the audience to tears with his honesty and emotion.
Be warned that this is not a play for the faint of heart. Somewhat reminiscent of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” this is a brutally honest story of attempted reconciliation, forgiveness, and, ultimately, revenge. It’s painful and gut-wrenching, but so honestly directed and acted that it’s impossible to forget. Much like the ghostly thumping within the walls of Debora’s house, Jessica Fisch’s raw-edged production will haunt audiences long after the houselights are restored. Appropriately playing during Gay Pride month, this drama will initiate a necessary dialogue about the devastating effects of bullying, especially within the LGBTQ community.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 17-July 16 by Cor Theatre at the Buena Theatre venue of the Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 866-811-4111 or by going to www.cortheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.