Chicago Theatre Review
Ripped From Today’s Headlines
Between Riverside and Crazy – Steppenwolf Theatre Company
A father figure to many in his life, Walter Washington is a retired New York City policeman, affectionately called Pops. He’s a widower with a son named Junior who, when the play opens, has just been released from jail. Walter shares his dad’s apartment with Lulu, his girlfriend, and Oswaldo, a recovering drug addict. Walter’s lived in his spacious Manhattan rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive since the 70’s. The play centers around Walter’s lawsuit against the NYPD for discrimination, having been shot repeatedly by a white officer while off-duty. Pops’ extended family also includes his former partner, Detective O’Connor, and her fiancee, Lt. Caro. Amid Pops’ domestic problems and concerns, the two officers reunite one night with their friend, during which time they try to persuade Walter to drop his lawsuit and accept a financial settlement, instead.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama couldn’t be more timely. With the growth of violence and racial unrest surging Nationally, especially involving the police force in major cities, this play might’ve been created from today’s headlines. Guirgis’ play swings evenly between unexpected dark comedy and heartbreaking, soul-searching drama. It’s a drama of sharp contrasts, with characters driven by love as well as by their own greed and desires. So popular during its New York run, the play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, as well as several other accolades. This drama, especially under Yasen Peyankov’s outstanding, brisk direction, is easy to like. Theatergoers will immediately take to Pops and his honest, gentle view of the world. They’ll love this man’s generosity and his openminded attitude toward his friends and family. Memorable scenes, such as those between Walter and his would-be daughter-in-law, Lulu, or his father/son relationship with troubled houseguest Oswaldo, show us a man who, despite his own problems, lives for others.
Collette Pollard’s extraordinarily detailed scenic design of an apartment that’s “seen better days since the death of Pops’ beloved wife,” is incredible. It’s realistic and as cluttered as the lives of its inhabitants. Modeled after the playwright’s own flat on Riverside Drive, the rooms have an overstuffed look that’s appropriate for most Upper West Side places that have been lived in for decades. The stained glass windows add an air of elegance to the place while shielding Pops and his family from the harsh world outside their building. The Christmas tree still decorated and lit adds to the look of a room that hasn’t changed in years. Add to this a rooftop porch reserved for a few special scenes, and we have one more example of Ms. Pollard’s exceptional theatrical design artistry.
As Walter “Pops” Washington, stage and film actor Eamonn Walker is terrific. Probably younger than the character, Mr. Walker brings an honest maturity and kindness to the role, even when enraged by those around him. One of the actor’s finest scenes is between Pops and his two police friends, after he’s been confined to his bed following a coronary episode. While trying to comfort him they also attempt to persuade Pops to resign to a financial settlement. In Walker’s gifted hands, this scene becomes the actor’s finest moment when Pops holds the trump card.
The always impressive Tim Hopper, whose work has been enjoyed in countless Steppenwolf productions, is excellent as Lt. Caro. He’s joined by familiar face Audrey Francis as Pops’ former partner, Detective O’Connor. Together they work well as a team, united to support their friend while trying to convince him of the right thing to do. Of course, that also includes what will ultimately benefit themselves, as well. Fresh from the New York production, Victor Almanzar is perfection as the likable, childlike Oswaldo. His scenes with Walker are master classes in realistic, unaffected acting and, despite being a minor character, is a young man audiences will remember long after the final curtain.
Elena Marisa Flores brings a breath of fresh air to the production as lovable Lulu. She plays a young woman whose bulb doesn’t always shine as brightly as those around her, but she’s so earnest and caring that Lulu is someone we’d enjoy knowing. Lily Mojekwu returns to Steppenwolf as the Church Lady. Lending an air of sensuality and a touch of supernatural mystery to the story, Ms. Mojekwu is stunning and very funny in this role. And James Vincent Meredith shines as Junior, Pops’ troubled son who loves and cares for his father, but would like nothing more than to leave Riverside Drive and be on his own.
Yasen Peyankov’s guided an excellent production of this wonderful, heartbreaking and humorous play. It’s a story that might actually be ripped from today’s headlines, but the play provides humanity to the statistics of our newscasts. It’s a story about love, about real people who live for themselves while still managing to care for each other. It puts a name and a face to the endless violence and concerns this country seems to always experience. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ sensational prize-winning drama won’t provide any answers, but it raises enough questions to stimulate conversation about our world today.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 23-August 21 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, 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 fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com