REVIEWSREVIEWS BYTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

Cherry Smoke

By James McManus

Cherry Smoke

Directed by Lavina Jadhwani

At the side project theatre company

Strong acting yields a riveting gem of a drama.

“Fightin’s my trade,” says Fish in the play. “Some guys lay brick, I bust your fuckin nose open.”

Playwright James McManus sets his characters in a rural rust-belt former steel town in Western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh where poverty, ignorance and basic human survival dominate. The area is somewhat similar to the hills of West Virginia. The cast realistically sport authentic blue collar area accents similar to South-side Chicago accents.

We meet the raging passionate paranoid Fish (the intense Dan Toot) – an alley brawler and underground prize fighter who learned from his departed father to “punch til ya can’t punch no more, then keep punching.” That is his survival mantra that has kept him alive in juve and on the backwaters of steel town.  His brother Duffy (Peter Oyloe in another fully developed performance) is his fight manager and loyal friend who tries to keep Fish from exploding his way back to prison.

cherry smaoke by mcmanus

Playwright McManus effectively uses flashback to tell of the brothers bleak background. We see how Fish got his name and how he channeled his rage via fist fighting. Duffy, in awe of his older brothers physical skills, searches for a more tame existence but his fierce loyalty  toward Fish demands that he help his spontaneous combustive brother cope with life.

cherry smaoke by mcmanus

The brothers are forever shaped as teens when each meet their soul mate. Fish meets a semi-retarded girl runaway near the town’s river. Cherry (Emily Shain in a magically effective performance) has a purity defined by her ignorance yet she is filled with wonder as she craves magic. She falls in love with Fish instantly. Her love is true, unconditional and complete. She is sensual.  She has a positive calming effect on Fish and an unwavering faith in her fighter boyfriend.

Duffy meets Bug (Jessica London-Shields) a tomboy who as a teen decides that the gentle Duffy is ‘her man.’ We see their love blossom as the two couples struggle to survive the cruel poverty and hopeless rust-belt world. Duffy and Bug’s love gets them through while Fish is continually exploding with his fists both in the ring and at the dive bars. Each fight results in victory at the cost of severe eye cuts that Duffy can’t always fix. Can the bleeding ever stop?

Cherry Smoke is a well acted, character driven drama that is visceral, raw, sensual and violent yet it is a powerful love story filled with tragedy. It is a story of how the decline of an area can lead to the inability of a frustrated and abandoned youth to cope with life that erupts into physical rage. This intense show has elegant lyrical dialogue as each estranged character has their say. Fish and Cherry have their epiphany with disastrous results.

Cherry Smoke’s  cast features  a manic turn by Dan Toot as the wound-too-tight Fish. Peter Oyloe is the weaker yet morally stronger younger brother while Jesica London-Shields is the low keyed yet in charge girlfriend to Duffy. Emily Shain was marvelous as the challenged yet mysterious runaway girl who views Fish as her soul mate.

Cherry Smoke is a love poem defined by brutality and physical and emotional scars. It gives us a glimpse into the underbelly of youth lost as the silent smoke stacks destroy blue collar America.  I view Cherry Smoke as a fable where frustration and pent-up rage can explode at anytime. Director Lavina Jadhwani has a fast-paced and emotionally intense drama that quickly engages us and holds us throughout. This is  worthy storefront theatre featuring four excellent performances proving, once again, that wonderful theatre is often found on little stages. McManus is a fine storyteller.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

At the side project theatre, 1439W. Jarvis, Chicago, IL, call 773-973-2150,, tickets $20, $15 students/industry, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm, added Saturday matinees at 4 pm on Dec 4 & 18, running time is 1 hour, 40 minutes without intermission, through December 19, 2010

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