Thursday November 23rd 2017

“Cherry Smoke”

recommended   In this Holiday season, one where many of the local theaters feel the need to present “holiday themed plays”, it is inspiring to see some of the more adventurous companies bring us stirring new dramas. The Side Project Theater Company, a true storefront theater located in Rogers Park kicks off their season with such a production. A play written by James McManus called “Cherry Smoke”- one hour and forty minutes of intensity ( no intermission) about two brothers and the women in their lives. Fish  ( a powerful performance by Dan Toot) is a fighter. His father raised him to be a man and to punch until you cannot punch any longer, and then keep on punching. Set in a poor steeltown somewhere in America, “Cherry Smoke” takes us on a ride that has many ups and downs as we see that Fish and his younger brother  Duffy ( another super character portrayal by young Peter Oyloe) are left to their own defenses. Raised by their dad who left them very little in either education, property or love and understanding, we see that Fish , from his childhood on, had to fight- no matter where and Duffy was his ward, his kid brother that he defended and cared for.

The story has some dizziness in time sequences as we travel into the past with very little warning and unsmooth transitions. Fish meets Cherry ( the delightful Emily Shain) who is a runaway girl that brings him something different and makes him happy. For her, a girl with a tattered past, he creates the magic that she seeks and together they vow to always stay together. Duffy’s love is Bug ( the boyish Jessica London-Sheilds) who teaches him about life. As it turns out Duffy and Bug are almost normal in this play about dysfunctional lifestyles and people. They work hard and try to exist as others do while Fish and Cherry live in a dreamworld of “Cherry Smoke”. Fish spends a great deal of time in jail ( starting with juvenile halls as a teen) , but Cherry is always there when he comes back. He has been made to believe that fighting will be his way out of his life,but as it turns out, not exactly what happens.

This is a story that deals with love and tragedy as Fish and Cherry find themselves living on the edge of what we might call a life. Duffy and Bug have accepted their lives and try to adjust, but Fish and Cherry never change, even with the coming of a child. I certainly do not want to give away the amazing ending, but will tell you that it is one of tragedy for Cherry and Fish, while also sad for Duffy and Cherry, at least their lives are complete at the end of the play. There is a very memorable line in the play about ” some brokes than can never be fixed”. If we look at this line in better grammar, it says that no matter what good we try to do, our fate has been decided and what is destined will happen.

Directed by  Lavina Jadhwani on a very intimate set designed by Sally Weiss ( who also did the lighting design), this is a quick moving 100 minutes. The storefron is not an easy place to build a set or do a play, but Jadhwani, brings these characters up close and personal and after all that is what one hopes for in a small intimate theater setting. We feel as if we are the “fly on the wall” peering into their lives, when they are teens, pre-teens and in the present. The flashbacks just happen and the words they say and the actions they do allow us to see their history- nothing fancy, just good theater.

Scott Butler handled the dialects- these are lower class, uneducated “steeltown” people, so one must keep that in mind when listening to the words tey say. Michelle Milne’s movement ( fight scenes and such) are quite realistic and the musical background used from time to time completes the overall picture being painted. If you are somewhat tired of “holiday” fare and want something more dramatic and mind opening, this is an experience you will remember. “Cherry Smoke” will continue at The Side Project Theatre located at 1439 West Jarvis through December 19th with performances as follows:

Thursday,Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.. On December 4th and 18th, there will also be a 4 p.m. performance.

Tickets are $20 ( general admission), students $15 and can be purchased by calling 773-973-2150 or online at

street parking is fairly easy ( without meters)

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