Upon first entering the house of The Side Project Theatre, it looks more like a small room with chairs than a stage: that is until a production begins. Above all, the theatre uses superlative technical features to bring us to remote, strange, or varied locations. Often lighting plays a huge role in creating the ambience of places that would otherwise be difficult to convey. Its latest endeavor is Robert Tenges’ play “Whatever” is directed by Adam Webster who uses the minimal space to convincingly create a mall, bars, homes, counseling office, a high school classroom, and a car. These changes are made by the cast who moves the basic props (Holly McCauley) around the stage during black outs in between with music quietly placing in the background (Sound Design: Stephen Gawrit) adding to the artistry while preserving verisimilitude. The script employs a lot of cutting: the action is never linear, but we are moved from one place and situation to another with somewhat static but extremely effective lighting (Becca Jeffords) marking the beginning and end of each separate place and scene: each one convincing.
During these scenes, we meet Declan (Aaron Lockman): a teenage boy diagnosed with anger management problems and put on Abilify which he often skips, complaining “look at the world and tell me how not to be angry.” His girlfriend, Chloe, with whom he (eventually) wants to have a family, is pregnant, but recognizing that they are in high school, he helps her procure an abortion. Unbeknownst to him, Chloe’s guidance counselor Scott (Bryan Breau) has been having sex with her, perhaps since her freshman year of high school, and when he says that the relationship is unsustainable, she reveals that the baby is his. Meanwhile, the other adults struggle to maintain healthy and appropriate relationships with each other. Ivy (Shawna Tucker), Declan’s mother, split with his Dad a long time ago for very good reasons, and has been so busy taking care of a mentally ill son that she has only recently struck up a friendship with Rachel (Kirsten D’Aurelio) whom she introduced to Chloe’s Dad, Henry (Josh Odor).
Rachel and Henry struggle to have a romance, but he is distant and lonely. He complains that he has lost his friends, particularly his colleague and boss, Mike (Mike Rice) who also feels alienated and alone, especially as his wife has announced that she is leaving him after he has spent a long stint in the hospital for what is apparently a physical malady. “Everybody is alone” Declan proclaims, and perhaps he is the un-medicated voice of reason he claims to be early in the play. The one act of physical aggression we see him commit is likely to strike every theatre goer as justified and chivalrous (in the best sense of the word).
Webster seems to be as gifted at choosing and directing his actors as he is using the Side Project’s space. Aaron Lockman is constantly pale, wan, and barely holding control as Declan in a world that strikes him as cruel and unfair—it’s clear to everyone including his Mom that he needs his Dad who lives in Toronto, and sees him only a month every summer. For her part, Shawna Tucker delivers a warm, but frustrated and painful performance as Ivy: cultivating a character that seems so real that it’s as though we could talk to her after the performance is over. Bryan Breau brings the appearance of competence to Henry as a counselor even while surreptitiously engaging in criminal and abusive behavior, but is able to convey a suffering that can even at times elicit sympathy from audience-goers, however unwarranted and inappropriate, given he is exactly the word he doesn’t accept: a rapist. His performance makes us uncomfortable in a very affecting way. Kirsten D’Aurelio is convincing as an intelligent woman who continually dates bad men, and is able to demonstrate warmth and concern for Chloe. Josh Odor is harsh as Chloe’s father: a miserable misanthrope and Mike Rice is the competent professional who has become increasingly completely alone in the world.
An interesting article in the press-packet talked about the lack and fear of close friendships as a male problem, but perhaps it really is increasingly a human one, though it very well may disproportionately affect men. Increasingly, people lose touch and withdraw from their friends as they age, latter finding themselves alone and confused. Robert Tenges’s script is subtle and doesn’t blame these phenomena on I-Phones, Facebook, computers, or the break-down in traditional family life. Instead, it refuses to offer any easy resolution to the question but portrays loneliness, the world, and what it does to the characters within the play with humor, pathos, and compassion.
“Whatever” is running at the Side Project located at 1439 W. Jarvis Avenue in Rogers Park Chicago through August 9th, 2015. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 773-340-0140 or by visiting http://www.thesideproject.net. The show runs for one hour and forty minutes with no intermission. To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “Whatever”