Chicago Theatre Review
Barbecue – Steppenwolf Theatre
Robert O’Hara’s talent for writing outrageous comedy is a gift. He doesn’t tiptoe around the funny; he digs in deep, gets messy and goes right down to the heart of the matter. In “BootyCandy,” recently enjoyed at Chicago’s Windy City Playhouse, the playwright presented a riotous comedy comprised of several interrelated scenes depicting what it was like to grow up as a gay African American. In this new Chicago premier, presented by Strawdog Theatre Company, O’Hara tells another uniquely-crafted story, this time combining America’s obsession with fame and her love of watching other people suffering through insurmountable problems.
Not a lot of detail can be provided about the plot without spoiling the many hilarious surprises that sneak up on the unsuspecting audience. Like a good mystery, it’s a better experience enjoyed firsthand. Suffice it to say that the plot begins with a muck-mouthed family of lowlifes who’ve gathered together for one purpose. Lillie-Anne, the eldest sibling, has called a meeting with her brother, James T, and two sisters, Marie and Adlean. She plans to meet in the barbecue area of a local park to help stage an intervention with their sister, Barbara. Every member of this dysfunctional clan suffers from some kind of addiction or, at the very least, a deeply emotional issue. But it’s Barbara, nicknamed Zippity Boom by her siblings, due to her drug-fueled outbursts, who’s considered the most seriously troubled.
O’Hara’s far-out format and sassy dialogue are what makes this play especially exciting. He’s written another play that examines race and culture with satire and wit. The O’Mallerys begin the play as a Caucasian family, but, following a sudden blackout, the siblings are unexpectedly replaced onstage with their African American counterparts. The characters all have the same names and their story about an open air intervention simply continues where it left off. This convention of alternating the casts continues throughout Act I. However, with the surprising conclusion to the first act, the audience files out for intermission wondering where the heck this play is headed next.
Again, too much information would spoil the surprises for new audiences. The only thing to note is that the second half of the play, while it still offers a number of laughs, is much more serious than the previous act. The two Barbaras dominate this portion of the play, where in the first act they were mostly only bystanders. The big payoff comes in the final scene, which is O’Hara’s commentary on the often white-dominated world of handing out awards in the arts. He makes a valid point about this and the unreality of reality TV, but patrons may leave the theatre wishing that the second act had contained more of the savagely raucous humor of Act I.
Damon Kiely directs this production with flippancy and ferocity. He’s certainly up to the task, with his impressive resume. Kiely’s cast is first-rate, as well. Both Barbara Figgins and Deanna Reed-Foster, as the more even-keeled forces of nature in this family, play the two Lillie-Annes. You wouldn’t want to cross either of them or get in their way, for fear of being run over. Celeste M. Cooper is jaw-dropping hilarious as manic Marie, matched in the role by Anita Deely. These two ladies can’t do a thing without the close companionship of their old friend, Jack Daniels. Both Kristin Collins and Kamille Dawkins are very good as the more empathetic sister, Adlean. John Henry Roberts and Terence Sims provide the testosterone and gravitas as the marijuana-addicted James T. But the two standouts of this play are beautiful and eloquent Ginneh Thomas and Abby Pierce as the two Barbaras. It’s these two actors who bring the few moments of realism to this bizarre story, setting the play on its trajectory to a very funny conclusion.
This production is part of Steppenwolf’s Lookout Visiting Company program. It offers emerging artists and respected theatre companies the chance to produce in Steppenwolf’s 1700 Venue, as an alternative to their own storefront space. With a sparse, yet attractive set by Joanna Iwanicka, fine lighting and sound design by Jared Gooding and Heath Hays, and humorous costumes and wigs by Aly Renee Amidei, this production of Robert O’Hara’s latest play is well worth seeing. It’s no walk in the park, and there’s no barbecue being served, but this playwright proves once again he’s a dominant force in contemporary American Theatre.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 17-September 30 by Steppenwolf Theatre, 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 area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.