[originally published Aisle Say Chicago August 6, 2006]

Spare Change

by Mia McCullough
Directed by Lisa Portes
First Look Repertory of New Work
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre
1624 North Halsted / (312) 335-1650 / http://www.steppenwolf.org
Through August 13, 2006

In the third of the three First Look new plays viewed in a marathon weekend, “Spare Change” features Brad (Paul Noble) and Claire (Janelle Snow, most recently showcased in Ellipse Theatre‘s “The Sweetest Swing in Baseball”), as a married couple struggling with efforts to get pregnant while each holds down a high pressure corporate job. The play travels in sometimes surprising directions after the initial setup, and involves at times domestic abuse, homelessness, social service delivery strategies, and even the democratizing effects of riding public transportation. Yes, too many plots can obscure the powerfully etched characters Mia McCullough has created. Perhaps subsequent revisions will prune and refine the through lines to this story.

Brad and Claire confront their apparent challenged fertility with energy and some conflict. Claire appears ambivalent. We ask: have we been down the “high strung woman in heterosexual couple struggling with getting pregnant” road more than a few times over the past few decades in similar dramas? To this playwright’s credit, she has a few surprises in store for us, including a homeless mother named Michael Ann and a prostitute named Mikki (both played by Yetide Badaki). And along the way, Claire delivers some lovely lines (about her decision to try for kids): “It doesn’t feel brave, it feels terrifying. Maybe that’s what brave feels like.”

“Spare change” has many meanings in this play. As a character action and plot device, Brad regularly empties change from his pockets at the end of each day, leaving piles on various available surfaces in their otherwise immaculate apartment. Claire’s reaction to these piles, how she treats them (loving gathering or bemused piling or angered hurling of handfuls across the room) reflects her feelings about Brad and their relationship at different points in the play. Spare change could also reflect those habits that may need to adapt to accommodate a new life (a baby) or life changes (Brad’s contemplated career change). All these meanings are sufficient to create absorbing theatre.

And yet, there are a random series of sometimes odd and ill-supported turns that do distract from the powerful core scenes. Are quite so many comings and goings required to tell this story? Do the multiple worlds really need to meet up in Claire and Brad’s apartment, accompanied by slamming doors and multiple changes of scene? This plotting and pacing and staging can come off as “too much” rather than the key essential actions required to provoke character development and change. Along the way in this production, however, the multi-casting necessary to tell the story in its current too-complicated form, shows off the skills of one particular actress to amazing advantage. Beautiful Alana Arenas takes on at least six roles with aplomb and grace, and efficiently creates distinct and compelling characters. One of these characters, a hospital nurse, delivers a line that could be the moral of this play: “Sometimes the best thing you can do for people is just to let them be.” The journey of several of these characters is whether or not they can live with that advice.

© Martha Wade Steketee (August 6, 2006)

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