Chicago Theatre Review
T – ATC
In 1991 Tonya Harding won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and placed second in the World Championships. She become the first American woman to complete a triple axel jump while competing for a medal. But just three years later, Ms. Harding’s name would become synonymous with villainy. She achieved this notoriety for her involvement with an attack on fellow ice skater, Nancy Kerrigan. She may or may not have helped orchestrate the vicious deed, but Tonya eventually pleaded guilty in conspiring to hinder the prosecution from determining the blame. Eventually she was banned for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.
In Dan Aibel’s new play, simply entitled T, Ms. Harding’s name is seldom used; the young woman is addressed by others using this nickname. Born in Portland, Oregon, Tonya began skating at the tender age of three. Pressured by her mother to succeed, she dropped out of high school so she could practice daily, but Tonya eventually earned her GED. Harding has stated that she suffered continual mental and physical abuse by her mother, and thus her trainer became a kind of surrogate parent. In 1991 Tonya’s competitive success began to decline. She suffered a twisted ankle the following year, causing Tonya to achieve only third place in the U.S. Championships. In Aibel’s stylized comic drama, the time period is a little cloudy. However, the play appears to center around the years surrounding the Nancy Kerrigan incident.
This 95-minute one-act focuses heavily on the manipulation and machinations by Tonya’s husband, Jeff Gillooly and her cluelessly inept bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt. Aibel’s drama demands the pacing to be razor sharp, the dialogue driving and staccato. The characterizations are sketchy, almost cartoon-like, and the events feel somewhat abstract. The play assumes a familiarity with the barbaric event in 1994 that forced Nancy Karrigan to withdraw from the national championships. Younger theatergoers, and those unfamiliar with this tragic story from the sports world, may not fully understand what’s going on much of the time. Still, this drama is playful, caustic and and entertaining, delivering its story with the power of a gatling gun.
In director Margot Bordelon’s smart, concise staging, the scenes arrive quickly, often bursting on stage to the beat of Miles Polaski’s pulsating pop/rock musical score. The characters enter, pose, the lights come up and the dialogue starts firing breathlessly. Andrew Boyce’s 90’s-inspired, wood-paneled and sparsely decorated setting allows transitions to happen easily, from Tanya’s home, to the skating rink, to a diner, a hotel and a courtroom. Props and decor are kept to a minimum and Stephanie Cluggish has costumed the women in period warmup gear while the men stand out in geometric-designed sweaters.
Leah Raidt physically resembles the petite blonde figure skater, Tanya Harding, and her elfish, pouting, almost adolescent characterization is spot-on. Tyler Ravelson is a bombastic, high-strung Jeff, all frantic gestures and machine gun delivery. Nate Whelden perfectly captures the naive Neanderthal-like quality of Shawn, who functions with more animal instinct than innate intelligence. Guy Massey humorously plays Al Harding, Tanya’s unemployed, blue collar father, who’s mistrustful of everyone, especially Jeff. He harbors a certain danger in everything he says and does. And, fantastic in any role she undertakes, the always wonderful Kelli Simpkins totally inhabits Joanne, as the strongest character of the play. As Tanya’s stern, goal-oriented skating coach and proxy parental unit, Joanne’s patience is continually tested by both Tanya and Jeff. She, the petulant spoiled brat, and her husband, the smarmy wheeler-dealer, always looking for a way to make a quick buck from Tanya’s achievements, are constant challenges for Joanne. That she manages to keep her cool at all is quite remarkable and a lot of fun to watch.
This brisk new one-act, by emerging new playwright Dan Aibel, is fast-paced and acerbic. It barks and bites while remaining stylish and flashy, thanks to the expert direction of Margot Bordelon. While loosely based upon a real life tragic incident within the sporting world, Aibel’s play tells a familiar story of underdogs attempting to rise above their humdrum, mediocre lives and into the spotlight of fame and fortune. Nothing, short of assault and battery, is ever ruled out and, in this moralistic story, the lies and fabrications are eventually exposed.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 22-June 25 by the American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-409-4125 or by going to www.atcweb.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.