Recommended***Every day, we listen to news and read papers where young people are beaten, abused or even shot by their peers. The world is filled with “bullies” who pick on other for many reasons: jealousy, fear and in some cases, sexual orientation. In Sarah Gubbins, world premiere play, “fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life” , now on stage as part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults series, we see what can be the cause of ths behavior. Her story takes place in suburban Lagrange, a western suburb that follows the Burlington railroad tracks and is divided by them. On one side well-to-do, on the other average income ( for the western suburbs) with a mix of housing, mostly single family. In one of these homes, is Jo (the adorable and talented Fiona Robert), a junior in high school, and her brother Reed (deftly handled by Bradley Grant Smith) who is older and it appears not going anywhere in life. They appear to be a normal brother and sister ( the parents are never seen). Jo, however is Gay and living in suburbia and going to a Catholic school is not the best place to be under these circumstances.
Jo does have two friends at school, Emma ( well played by Zoe Levin) and Mickey ( Ian Daniel McLaren) who is also gay and thus her ally. Emma is straight and has a boyfriend but relies on Jo for help with her schoolwork and as someone who is not a threat to her when it comes to romance. Their new English teacher ,Ms Delaney ( a strong performance by Lily Mojekwu) assigns the class Carson McCullers’ novel “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” ( which Steppenwolf did last fall) and Jo finds a certain kinship with the main character John Singer.
Jo is a good person, one who listens to other people and tries to be a friend. At a young age, she finds that with the exception of her small circle, she is an outsider. While she excels at basketball and in her studies, with the exception of her two friends and brother, she is a loner. Jo seeks love, as most teens do and finds herself attracted to her new English teacher, who in her mind is “like her”, and Emma, who is “straight” finds that she has some attraction to Jo, but is unsure of what it is, more than likely, just curiosity.
After several small incidents, Jo becomes the victim of a Gay Bashing and through this ordeal she learns a lot more about the people around her. Her friend Emma sends a gift but cannot visit her. Is this for fear that if she does, the guys who beat Jo will come after her? Mickey and Reed are there as much as possible and Ms Delaney does come to visit as well. As Jo returns to her life, she realizes that she has to find a way to avoid those who fear her as they are more afraid of who and what they are, or might be.
This is a solid 90 minutes of story-telling on a set that is designed by Chelsea Warren ( magical in that they allow us into the life of Jo and her friends with just enough to allow our minds to listen to the words of the playwright. Directed by Joanie Schultz, who uses the three areas of the stage to full advantage, there are also screens above where we have projections that are amazing ( Mike Tutaj) as watch texting take place, cartoon like drawings appear and drawings that Jo herself has done. The lighting effects ( Lee Keenan) and Sound (Thomas Dixon) are the finishing touches along with the costumes(David Hyman). I do have to say that body mikes would help greatly in the event that some older people attend ( and they should on the week-ends) as these words are far to important to be lost. Young actors and actresses for the most part do not understand the “play it to the back row” line that has been around for many years- they don’t get it!
The title explains a lot- fml is part of the “text language” with ml being my life and I am sure you can figure out the F word, but of greater importance, this shows the power of literature as Jo ,despite her setbacks, learns a lesson in dealing with survival and we learn that a young playwright, inspired by”The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” developed a story from what she got out the novel.
“fml” will continue at The Steppenwolf through March 18th but for other than school groups, only on Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.( except the 11th).
You can also go online at www.steppenwolf.org
If you have a group or school and want to learn more about the program call 312-654-5643, Lauren Sivak