review: the unmentionables

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-UNMENTIONABLES.html]

THE UNMENTIONABLES

by Bruce Norris
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Starring Amy Morton and Rick Snyder
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre
1650 North Halsted / (312) 335-1650
www.steppenwolf.org
Through August 27, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
July 16, 2006

Bruce Norris‘s newest play “The Unmentionables” is set in an unnamed African country, yet could be in any regime with haves and have-nots, oppressors and the oppressed, and the opportunity for individuals to facilitate or participate in the oppression of their own people or to resist that oppression. In this drama, as in life, few escape unscathed. And it makes for mesmerizing theatre.

The drama begins (and ends) with one character greeting us from the audience and daring us to become involved in the drama about to unfold. The belligerent African youth Etienne (Jon Hill) challenges us to engage with the story, and remains repentantly resistant to verbal and physical interactions with all the play’s characters, of all backgrounds. Etienne begins and remains the play’s sole true “outsider” as he is the one true resident, uninvested in and unencumbered by connections with any of the other parties or interests. A fire sets in motion the dramatic “rubbing up” of characters who would not otherwise meet, creating the dramatic synergy that breaks down the social skins that they have developed over time.

The remaining characters are introduced, as in a Chekhov play (“Uncle Vanya” comes to mind) in a superficially posh world peopled with characters of multi-layered neuroses and loyalties. A plantation-like estate guest room in an unnamed African country is our setting for the play’s action — with adjoining bathroom, sitting areas, and additional storage room that is all put to specific use as the play proceeds. The guest suite is occupied by two people displaced by the fire: a white American Dave (Lea Coco), who we learn is an earnest missionary who runs the now fire-damaged school for local children, and his white American fiancé of just a few months Jane (Shannon Cochran), a television actress of some fame, whose commitment to Dave’s “cause” is oddly hollow, and who is suffering from a possibly hysterical collapse. Dave and Jane’s hosts are a factory owner Don (Rick Snyder) and his wife Nancy (Amy Morton). Nancy is a displaced member of the “ladies who lunch”, at a loss in her plantation lifestyle, restricted on the gated grounds, left to ramble on endlessly and seemingly harmlessly about, well, whatever occurs to her. Don is a pragmatic businessman who is accustomed to calling the shots, and sees his wife as dotty. The Chekhovian ensemble is completed by the Doctor (Kenn E. Head), a local man who has been educated in the States and apparently lives on the estate, and Aunt Mimi (Ora Jones), a local woman who is tied into the community, providing essential political connections for the American business interests, and very clearly makes has goals of her own. Finally, two unnamed African “soldiers” or militia representatives (we are never told) are omnipresent, either outside the bedroom doors or playing more active roles later in the play (Chiké Johnson and Adeoye).

The play’s themes include colonialism and collusion, organized religion and individual hope, moral righteousness and individual responsibility. Each of the characters carefully assembled by the playwright offers a surprising range of reflections on and reactions to power and morality, including both humor and horror. Director Anna D. Shapiro has created a world of fully fleshed characters that regale us for several hours with laughter and with shocked tears. Aunt Mimi is realistic in her own way, reminding other characters that “crocodiles will kill for sport”; Nancy the pampered wife literally and figuratively plugs her ears and hugs a sock puppet to mask realities she doesn’t quite want to face. Somewhere between these two extremes fall the responses of the other characters to the drama at the core of the play: one character disappears, and there may be violence involved, who is to blame and how is the truth to be discovered?

The gorgeous and functional set by Todd Rosenthal, with all the playing spaces mentioned above, evokes a tropical, colonial, expensive home, edged by high walls topped by razor wire that is visible to deep stage left. The lighting design by J.R. Lederle is perfectly partnered with the set and creates several important effects, including a fabulous storm essential to plot development. Sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen creates many levels of this play’s world including parties and storms and other interactions. Costumes by James Schuette are alternately lush and simple as needed. Fight choreography by Joe Dempsey is essential to certain scenes in the play and is elegantly served by the actors.

The title could refer to many things that are suggested in the course of the play. On the one hand, we have a pair of brightly colored undergarments that are visible when one character’s white outer garment becomes rain-soaked, and end up in the possession of another. On the other hand, there is the undercurrent of unspoken hatreds, feelings, perspectives on the world that animate each of us, yet are usually unspoken and often not at all acknowledged by anyone. The laughter and fear and recognition and tears in this “Unmentionables” must be mentioned and seen and debated and enjoyed.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 16, 2006)

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