Christine Whitley’s play, Miles Away, perhaps tries to do too much. The themes of violence, sexual desire, drug addiction, class, redemption, and Grace at times become claustrophobic for the audience and actors, especially in The Side Project Theatre’s extremely intimate performance space. Likewise, the dialogue, symbols, and names can be heavy handed. (The plays main conceit is a bet that Sissy (Isabel Ellison), a pool hustler, cannot convincingly adapt the alias “Grace.”) That said, Whitley writes with incredible warmth and empathy for her characters and has penned some beautiful, lyrical, dialogue. Ron (Josh Odor) is on the road using Sissy, his ex-girlfriend’s daughter, to hustle at pool in bars and billiard halls. At some point (perhaps the very beginning), their relationship became sexual and the impropriety of it is constantly driven home to us: John compares her to her Mother, calls her “Sis,” and is angry when she, possibly falsely, claims to have been fifteen when they first went on the road together. They are called on by a young man, Giles (Dan Wilson), who claims to want to “back” them, but is so preppy and curious about their methods that Sissy is suspicious. When she does uncover his complex motives and intentions, John turns violent, but she sympathizes and it is that sympathy which ultimately allows her to rechristen herself Grace and channel all the mysterious power which that name suggests.
Director, Scott Weinstein, clearly understood Whitley’s play, but the production does have its shortcomings. Josh Odor and Isabel Ellison seem slightly miscast: They are too glamorous and, at least at the beginning of the performance, have slightly upper-middle class accents and mannerisms. Moreover, sometimes it is all too clear that they are reciting a script. These problems become significantly less pronounced as the play goes on, especially after the entrance of Dan Wilson, who gives a consistent and almost comically adept performance as the preppy Giles without ever falling into caricature.
Ultimately, Ellison and Odor do capture what is crucial about their characters’: Sissy’s determination and grit and Ron’s tragic fatalism, and they should be giving credit for making the script and the production a success. The set, a lower-end motel room (designed by Adam Webster), looks suitably anonymous and generic and Holly McCauley has chosen all the things you would expect to find in such a room as props. The plays surrealist ending, clearly called for in the script, does not fit successfully into the play, but Michael Smith’s lighting effectively makes it separate from the other the action while still leaving it up to the audience to decide whether it is simply a fantastic sequence or a drug induced hallucination. Either way his lighting brings a memorable, mythic ending to that final scene.
“Miles Away” runs at The Side Project located at 1439 West Jarviz in Chicago, through August 31st. Performances are: Sundays through Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. with Saturday performances on August 6th and 23rd at 3:30 pm. The theater is about a block east of the Jarvis Redline stop. There is street parking ( tight, but findable). Regular priced tickets are 20 dollars (seniors and students 15) and are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/448429.
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