theater (reviews)

review: one fine day

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

ONE FINE DAY

by David Rush
Directed by Drew Martin
Stage Left Theatre
3408 N. Sheffield, Chicago / (773) 883-8830
www.stagelefttheatre.com
Through April 7, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
February 27, 2007

David Rush‘s spanking new play “One Fine Day” starts off with a Chinese dragon monster we soon learn is “the fucking Jabberwocky” from Lewis Carroll‘s “Through The Looking Glass“. This psychic monster through-line is intended to illuminate the demons that pursue our main character Fred Miller (Don Bender) in his struggles with his life, letting go of the memory of his recently deceased wife, and the vicissitudes of the academic culture. Several questions feel a bit more primary in the play, however. Which teaching strategies are permissible and which are not? How are different cultures to be addressed in a painfully politically correct world? And what if the perfectly articulated arguments on the table between teachers and students actually mask entirely different agendas? This in fact may be the major issue addressed in this provocative and perhaps slightly flawed play.

Our two act adventure is set in a small college town where the set design and the scenes and dialogue quickly paint the sense of Midwestern quiet around the edges (beyond the faculty home, down the street from the neighborhood bar, outside the circle of lamplight illuminating the parking lot outside the classrooms and office buildings.) We are not on an urban campus full of city distractions but in a self-referential small college community. Fred Miller, our protagonist, has recently lost his wife to an illness and has lost his patience with teaching in general, and with the nuances of political correctness in general. Through a series of scenes, some flashbacks, some and imaginary friends (that darn Jabberwocky and various other characters out of literature appear), we learn that Fred and a student in one of his political philosophy classes have had an intense series of verbal scuffles. On some dimensions, “One Fine Day” is a study of political and religious and cultural discussions much like David Mamet‘s examinations of gender and power relations in “Oleanna“. And yet, this play goes in a very different direction with a different texture: more characters — perhaps too many dimensions and too many characters — and a powerful central idea playing off our audience expectations and asking us to look deeper into our central characters’ motivations.

Miller has several faculty buddies who interact with him differently in the face of a committee inquiry into his behavior in class. His old friend theatre professor Helen (the stunningKate Harris) is fabulous and supportive of him through his challenge and the imminent hearing. She states it simply and unequivocally early on: “If you fall we all fall.” They are great good friends, as she (long with a female partner) says “you’re my oldest friend I don’t have sex with.” He says “I’m fighting the Jabberrwock” to which she replies that he is ridiculous “as an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical.” For this line alone I love her character. Miller’s colleague Charles Clark (Tim Curtis), while an old friend and the person who facilitated Miller’s original hiring, has his own position to protect. Charles argues for Miller to back off appearing in the faculty hearing, in part because the hearing itself jeopardizes the bequest of a generous benefactor who is skittish of the bad press the hearings might inspire. The debate is set up in Miller’s mind as academic freedom (freedom to teach content in the way he wants to, e.g. provocatively evoking national socialism dressed as a Nazi) versus political correctness (or the legitimate though hard-line sentiments of the child of survivors). Miller represents and talks about teaching as performance art. But is this the whole story?

There are multiple types of students and their needs presented in this play. Fred is visited by Mrs. Winston (Angelique Westerfield), parent of a student seeking a college degree in order to pursue an applied graduate degree. Education for this student is instrumental not intellectual. The mother makes the case for her daughter, with echoes of a similar scene in “Doubt” involving a parent called to school by a nun worried about her child’s potential involvement with a teacher. In “Doubt”, the mother is also instrumental, arguing that ignoring these warning signs will allow graduation and entry into a better school in the subsequent academic year. In “One Fine Day”, the mother approaches Miller on her own initiative to make the case for Miller to lighten up his academic standards to allow her daughter to pass a class despite failing behavior and grades, for a greater good – a future career. A powerful scene. Another student Betty (Erin Reitz), Miller’s thesis advisee, is academically strategic in her own way. In the course of her professor’s slow implosion, when he wants Betty to be a character witness in the upcoming faculty hearing, Betty instead asks Miller to step off her committee. She notes “I didn’t muddy the waters … I’m just trying not to sink.” Finally, we have the remaining students (Rivkah’s colleagues) in Miller’s graduate Nietzche class .. Harrison (the strong Joseph Sherman, who also appeared in “Spinning Into Butter” at Eclipse Theatre this past season), the smart and sassy pragmatist; and other student stereotypes who provide a context in which we eventually see the student Rivkah. We learn that the issue is a stand-off: Miller refuses to explain his actions even when simple words might assist his case; and we see that Rivkah maintains a rigid stance, when softening might assist an understanding of her side.

Rivkah (Lindsay Weisberg), our student protagonist and political theoretical provocateur, attempts to meet with her professor Fred Miller several times before the formal hearing, attempting to slow down the events leading to a faculty meeting showdown involving egos and agendas that have now surpassed (or simply passed by) her own. Rivkah says in her first few appearances “This is getting out of control” before we, the audience, really know what “it” is. She had focused on tense and focused debates with her non-Jewish (and importantly German) teacher about philosophers and political and social events of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust. We now begin to wonder whether the story is in fact “Oleanna”-like sexual harassment or ripped from the headlines political intolerance and political correctness run amok on college campuses or whether instead the playwright might be attempting to tackle something a bit more complex.

Through scenes in campus bar between Miller and his student Harrison, we hear the details of what actually happened in the Nietzche class: debates in class, Rivkah’s insistently persistent and resistant stance; Miller’s increasing tendency to lock horns, and the rest of the students held hostage to the personal and intellectual battle between Rivkah and her perhaps imagined opponent. As we learn, both parties have engaged in battle on behalf of others. When the question is posed “who is the real Nazi here?” the words ring with power and resonance.

Director Drew Martin efficiently creates a number of distinct spaces and efficiently arranges the actors. Scenic and light designers Alan Donahue and Ron Seeley similarly create a range of feelings and settings in the small Stage Left performance space. I am constantly amazed by the number of configurations this company and their designers can achieve in this storefront; for this play, we are seating in two areas buffering the playing space between.

The “ Big Chill” moments between Miller and a student guitar player () provide interludes and breathing space, and allow for the boomers in the audience to connect to Miller’s unease (despite the fact that we don’t have all the facts for quite some time). The line that this (Bob Dylan’s music the Guitar Guy plays) was “the sound of a generational heart breaking” is poetic, but it is unclear whether dramatically it is earned. I respect the playwright’s art too much to indulge in editorial suggestions as part of reviews as a rule. However, in this case I must say that the playwright’s use of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” as character and metaphor was, for this audience member, superfluous. Similarly, Miller’s daughter Ginny, distracted, angry, always calling from her car and yelling at other drivers, is deftly evoked by Lisa Stevens (who also, as several actors, does yeoman’s duty portraying several additional small characters). Yet, this additional character and the comedic slapstick dimension she introduces did not assist the storytelling. We could have discovered the fact of his daughter in other ways. Focusing on the several faculty friends and several students might have been enough to set the dimensions of the story. And the story’s resolution might well have come in a starlit evening scene on Miller’s front porch between professor and student. “Space makes time just go away”, one of them observes, calmly, in the aftermath of their intellectual and emotional exertions. Rivkah laughs at herself for the first time in the play: “I was going to be Joan of Arc — I turned out to be Moe, Larry, and Curly”. What an exit line.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 27, 2007)

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