Chicago Theatre Review
Football and Phantoms
Welcome to Jesus – American Theatre Company
Sound, shadows and sudden shocks of light spin a tension-filled tale that combines ghosts and goalposts, football and phantoms. Set in fictional Hallelujah, Texas, the town’s sparse population are all good ol’ boys and gals, for whom fall’s Friday Night Lights are the only thing that illuminates their dark, lonely lives. Talented playwright Janine Nabers, whose “Swell in the Ground” is currently playing at the Gift Theatre, is enjoying the premiere of two of her plays in the Windy City. Here she’s penned a kind of Southern Gothic folk drama that’s especially timely, both to this country’s current volatile racial climate, as well as to the Halloween and Autumn season that launches this production.
The stage suddenly plunges into darkness. Then we hear a voice. Suddenly a half dozen flashlights eerily illuminate the actors’ faces and the sound of a crashing automobile cuts through the quiet chirping of crickets. The forest holds this town captive and hides its secrets until the final moments of the play. By the shocking climax all will be exposed, much to the horror of every theatergoer.
The Danver family is still mourning the death of favorite son, Paul, Jr., the star quarterback of the high school football team. He’d been counted on to lead the team to victory and the State Championship this year. All hope has left the predominately white town of Hallelujah. Now its citizens are all anxiously awaiting a miracle, hopefully in the person of an athletic hero. Ma Danvers has gone a little crazy, wandering around the woods at night in her sleepwear; head cheerleader Dixie Danvers has lost her ability to twirl a baton, but then, she’s got very little to cheer about now, anyway. Sheriff Paul, Sr. finds crime and disaster everywhere he looks, and his inept older son, Mike Danvers, is a brash, bumbling disappointment to his father. Bud Henderson, Dixie’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, tries his best, but he just can’t match the charisma and athletic skill of Paul, Jr. Poor Coach Henderson, who once managed the team with skill and success, is a zombie of his former self. But everybody has one thing in common: they’re all hoping and praying for someone to come and change the team’s luck and bring them a win on the football field. Then, into this small, religious town wanders Him, a giant of a kid, who just might be the savior everyone’s been waiting for.
Thanks to Will Davis’ sensitive, skillful staging and character guidance, this production turns into an evening of heart-stopping horror. Davis’ production is greatly enhanced by Jeffrey Levin’s sensational, violent sound design and original music. He supports the artistry provided in Rachel K. Levy’s starkly dramatic lighting plot. The production wouldn’t be half as tense and frightening without their combined creativity. Yu Shibagaki’s sparse, yet beautiful scenic design provides a vast playing area filled with wood chips and surrounded by a shadowy forest and the front porch of the Danvers’ house. Red and white, the school colors, figure predominately in Melissa Ng’s costumes, as well in much of the stage decor, props and special effects, courtesy of Jamie Karas.
The strong talents of this ensemble cast include Stacy Stoltz as Ma Danvers; John Henry Roberts as Sheriff Paul Danver; Taylor Blim, as Dixie; Josh Odor in the role of Coach Henderson; Theo Germaine as Bud Henderson; a marvelous Mike Danvers, portrayed by talented Casey Morris; and the always superb Rashaad Hall, as Him.
Audiences looking for a scary play, laced with the terror of what lies unseen in the shadows and goes bump in the night, will find Janine Nabers’ new ghostly, racially-motivated horror story at the American Theater Company to their liking. In a skillfully produced production by Will Davis that’ll keep theatergoers chilled with goosebumps and riveted to their seats, this tension-filled Southern Gothic is the stuff of guilty fear and sweat-soaked nightmares.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 26-December 3 by American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the ATC box office, by calling 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.