Both Melissa James Gibson’s play THIS and Windy City Playhouse’s production exist on a precipice. For the characters in Gibson’s script, they stand on the ledge approaching forty and the onset of middle age, while also waxing nostalgic about the good old college days.These college friends—Jane, Marrell, and Alan (plus Marrell’s spouse, Tom, and Jean-Pierre, a new, misplaced member of the circle)—stand firmly in that liminal space. The characters must navigate both the loss of a loved one (Jane is recently widowed) and the creation of new life (Marrell and Tom are parents to a newborn son). And while Gibson’s characters seem to be contemplating major life experiences, she also paints them as exceedingly privileged and self-absorbed—in such a way that it becomes rather difficult to sympathize with them. Similarly, Windy City Playhouse’s production (with direction by Artistic Associate Carl Menninger) occupies an in-between status—partly entertaining (with an occasional laugh-out-loud funny line delivery), partly striving towards deep emotional complexity. Unfortunately, THIS never swings far enough in either direction to be memorable.
The performances in THIS are adequate but do little to add gravitas to Gibson’s words. The actors are largely suitable for their roles but oftentimes seem to be playing out the scenes individually rather than legitimately responding to one another. Joe Zarrow gives the most nuanced performance as Alan, perhaps the loneliest member of the Alan-Jane-Marrell friendship trio. Alan’s desire to maintain his connections with his close college friends—as exemplified by his jilted reaction to not being described as Marrell’s “dear” friend upon meeting Jean-Pierre—come across strongly in Zarrow’s performance. As Marrell and Tom, respectively, Tania Richard and Steve O’Connell convincingly portray a bickering married couple who are worn out from taking care of their young son. But the connection between the two actors does not feel strong enough for us to want to root for them once their marriage begins to fall apart. Brian Grey charms as newcomer Jean Pierre but his French accent is wildly inconsistent and occasionally distracting.
While Jane is still supposed to be reeling as she approaches the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death, Amy Rubenstein’s performance in the play’s early scenes rather feels rooted in a larger, more negative attitude rather than coming from a place of grief. Rubenstein (who is also the Playhouse’s artistic director) seems to be floundering a bit in the early scenes—though perhaps that’s a reflection of Jane’s confusion amidst her grief. She finds her footing in the final two scenes of the play, in which both actor and character find emotional honesty.
Still, an awkward early encounter between Tom and Jane feels inauthentic, and the chemistry between O’Connell and Rubinstein doesn’t quite resonate. And while Gibson’s dialogue does contain some witty exchanges, it’s also quite stiff in others—which may also help explain some of the more unwieldy line deliveries. In the play’s second scene, Marrell asks Jane how she manages to hold herself together under the guise of “keeping the wolf away from the door”. Jane responds, “The wolf is never far from the door. The wolf IS the door.” Such lines feel at odds with Gibson’s overall conversational tone.
Katie-Bell Kenney provides a lovely set design for THIS, setting up a realistic apartment complex. The entire stage is flanked by a large series of doors. And while the doors are aesthetically pleasing, Gibson’s script doesn’t fully relay their symbolic function. I can only conclude that the doors are meant to represent the possibilities (or, rather, lack thereof) that Gibson’s characters see for themselves. And yet much like these doors, neither play nor production ultimately take a decisive direction.
THIS runs through August 28 at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 West Irving Park Road. Tickets are $25-$55. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit WindyCityPlayhouse.com.
Photo by Michael Brosilow