Redemption! How does one redeem themselves for their past history? Can one be rehabilitated by serving time in a prison or an institution? These are questions that have been pondered for many years and while many films and plays have been written covering this topic, none has hit the mark for me over the years until viewing Joel Drake Johnson’s “A Guide For The Perplexed”, now in its World Premiere at the Victory Gardens Theater. We all have guilt in our lives- some due to family situations, some through the path we chose to take in our lives and how in many cases pushed others aside in order to propel ourselves forward in our career or just in general.
Johnson’s five character play takes us on several journeys as each of the characters has come to a place in their life where they must either change their behavior or go on with their unhappiness. Under the direction of Sandy Shinner with a solid cast, this bumpy ride becomes smoother as the play progesses. Our main characters are Phillip ( marvelously played by Francis Guinan) who has just welcomed his ex-con brother-in-law, Doug ( a strong performance by Kevin Anderson) to his home, against his better judgement. Philip has just lose his job and is now the “keeper of the house” while Doug’s sister,Sheila ( Meg Thalken)travels the country as the family breadwinner. They have a son, Andrew ( deftly handled by Bubba Weiler), who is a genius of sorts, but has his own set of problems to deal with.
Doug has spent the last years in prison and has a difficult time with relationships. While his sister, due to her guilt is allowing him to stay in her house, she doesn’t even pick him up to bring him there, leaving this juicy job to her husband. Sheila and Phillip have their own set of problems and until Doug moves in, they do whatever they can to avoid facing them. Phillip shows him where he will reside and then gives him “the rules” of the house, a lovely home in a northern suburb. Phillip also has a problem dealing with their “genius” son who does all that he can to go against the “rules” and as it turns out, has his own set of problems to deal with.
While in prison, Doug developed relationships with female “pen pals” writing letters day in and day out to make the time move faster. One of these “pals” Betty ( Cynthia Baker handles this character perfectly), a well to do, lonely woman, comes to visit him in his new home. While Doug never thought one of them would really show up at his door, he is somewhat pleased with the magical gifts she brings and the warmth that she shows him, despite his telling her that there can be no romance, he also comes to the realization that the problem is his. He is unable to project human feelings to another because of the guilt that he carries with him from his previous life.While the Betty scene appears to be insignificent, I found it to be Doug’s turning point which then spilled over into Phillips attitude and at the end changed the relationship of the entire family.
Andrew , a brilliant young man has discovered that he is in fact a Homosexual and has a difficult time with the other kids at school as they all know and tease him about this. Despite being brilliant, he sees no love in his household and repels his father’s “rules” in any way he can. Doug sees in Andrew a little bit of his youth and the way he was treated by his parents and although Andrew seeks nothing from Doug, he feels at the end that he may be the only true normal member of his family and that perhaps, he alone, might be the one that will put the pieces in their proper place. That he may be the one to rid them all of the pain, the guilt and the fear that they all face. If we are to survive in a family we must all make some adjustments to the others around us and allow for some of the guilt to fade away. Perhaps Doug really was rehabilitated in his years in prison, or perhaps the fear of going back to that type of life causes him to become a hopeful character instead of a hopeless one. And perhaps Johnson’s characters will all go forward into a better life than they had before Doug came to live with them.
The sixth character in this production is the set by Jeffrey Bauer- a marvelous den with deck that is set on a turntable stage allowing us to move from scene to scene with great ease and no time lost. As it is , this production is about 2 1/2 hours in length and while there are some who may think it needs a little crop here and there, I truly feel that the time is needed to develop the intensity of each of our main characters. While the subject is “deep”, Johnson has a great deal of comic moments allowing us not to spend 2 hours plus clenching our teeth. The making of the bed scene in the first act is pure comic delight with Guinan and Anderson playing the perfect Felix and Oscar ( “The Odd Couple”) as they spread the sheets and tuck this and that- wonderfully done! The lighting by Todd Hensley, sound by Andre Pluess and props by Grant Sabin are the final touches to an extraordinary play that will certainly cause you to think about these characters or perhaps about your own life. What more could a playwright ask?
“Guide” will continue at The Victory Gardens Theater located at 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue through August 15th with performances as follows:
Tuesday,Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m.
Friday at 8 p.m.
Saturday at 5 and 8:30 p.m.
Sunday 3 p.m.
Wednesday, August 4th and 11the, there will be 2 p.m. matinees No Evening performance on 8/4
Tickets range from $20-$50 and are available at the box office, by phone at 773-871-3000 or by e-mail at email@example.com
for information about this and upcoming productions as well as season passes, visit www.victorygardens.org