Chicago Theatre Review
To Infinity and Beyond
Pilgrims – Gift Theatre
Following a pre-show soundtrack of golden oldies, interspersed with the loud rumbling of jet engines, Claire Kiechel’s fascinating one-act opens with a bang. At first her play appears to be set in a stylish hotel room, perhaps even aboard a cruise ship. It’s dominated by a double bed and two floating end tables, all tastefully decorated in the latest tones of comfort. But we eventually learn that this mobile inn is, in fact, aboard a spaceship heading to an unnamed planet. The premise is that this is part of a mission to colonize a planet that can support life. Our home on earth has finally become compromised, for one reason or another, and an alternative celestial body will become mankind’s new residence.
We’re introduced to three very different characters, two of whom have no names. First is the soldier, a 27-year-old man’s man who, we eventually learn, is suffering from PTSD, the result of an earlier, life-altering mission on this same planet. He’s haunted by the memory events from that time period, particularly of a female alien, whose presence now occupies his every thought and deed. This being is manifested in the form of an essence who, like a parasite, seems to actually live inside of the soldier. The soldier is played with strength and a complicated elusive quality by Ed Flynn. Never fully knowing what’s going on beyond those tormented, dark eyes, the audience is continually on edge in his presence. We become empathetic to his unexpected outbursts and ambiguous flights of fancy; then we’re equally surprised by his willingness to indulge in a few role-playing games with his traveling companion. The soldier is a complicated soul, made even more complex by this confining situation.
His roommate for this voyage is a pretty, yet annoying, chattering, nameless young girl, who suddenly appears at the soldier’s door. He’s shocked because he specifically requested a private room, to accommodate his personal issues, and a mistake has obviously been made. This adolescent babbles on and on, jumping from one topic to the next in a mad, stream-of-consciousness. She seems to possess no compassion for those around her. Intelligence, empathy, the ability to transition, or even come up for a breath, is not part of this kid’s style. She’s like every teenage girl one hears shrieking and prattling nonstop at the mall, each trying to outshout the other, but no one actually listening. Obviously the soldier finds this girl trying. She’s especially annoying when the soldier discovers they’re not only sharing a room, but, because of a virus that’s been brought onboard, being quarantined together. Hell is, indeed, other people.
Unlike the other two, the third character has a name. She’s called jasmine and she’s actually an older model robot, programmed to provide her humans what they want and need during this journey, but without any desires of her own. She serves as a flight attendant, chosen to be at the couple’s beck and call. She introduces herself and explains that they need only press the convenient button on the wall and she’ll be there. The play’s intense roller coaster ride is frequently broken by the much-appreciated humor contributed by the always wonderful Brittany Burch, as the automaton. Her artificial, sing-song vocal pattern, her programmed gestures, that are just a beat behind, and her vapid facial expressions may remind theatergoers of a kindly elementary school teacher or a patronizing waitress.
The girl understandably becomes easily bored with her sullen, introspective roommate. The soldier refuses to engage in the girl’s incessant drivel. He makes fun of her desire to tell stories and play games. The soldier chooses to spend his time preoccupied with his private journal, in which he draws and composes poetry. Plagued with insomnia, the soldier sometimes sleeps in the bathroom or on the floor of the room, far away from the girl’s bed. When he’s awake the soldier is irritable, rude and patronizing. Finally, however, the girl bargains with him, coaxing him to wear his uniform and cajoling the soldier into a bit of fantasy role playing. This opens up a whole new realm of experience, tapping into both of their psyches, and revealing some unexpected background information about these two futuristic Pilgrims and the real-life roles they’ve played in life.
Co-directed by artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton and guest artist Jessica Thebus, the production is paced with the tightness and menace of a science fiction horror film. The days count down on Smooch Medina’s calendar of days, projected upon the right wall of the stage. Designers Heather Gilbert and Christopher Kriz nicely employ their creative skills with light and sound to create a feeling of time and establish tension. Arnel Sancianco has designed a clean, streamlined setting that only suggests the immediate future.
As these two mismatched roommates travel to infinity and beyond, through weeks and months, toward their new home in the universe, secrets are shared, desires are explored and relationships evolve. Both the soldier and the girl suffer from their own individual post traumatic stress disorder, but as pioneers on the verge of colonizing a new world they eventually are forced together to become one.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 2-July 30 by the Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-283-7071 or by going to www.thegifttheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.