Directed by Cody Estle
Produced by Haven Theatre, Chicago
Race and Real Estate Collide Again, But This Time, It’s Father-Son Spite
As do many American family dramas, Don’t Go Gentle focuses not so much on a father who rages against the dying of the light as against his own children, so as to make the most of his fleeting time. In this case, the fading patriarch is a retired federal judge, giving his personal conflicts with others an explicit grounding in legal power structures, rather than just an implied or concurrent one, as is often the case. Cody Estle, whose recent success include directing Dividing the Estate at Raven Theatre, returns here to familiar themes, but in a drama with a much smaller ensemble, featuring two rich characters who suck everyone else into their obsession with each other.
Lawrence (Norm Woodel) was conservative enough to be appointed by George H. W. Bush to the Western District of New York, but not enough to be elevated to the Second Circuit under his son. A drug warrior with a penchant for imposing prison sentences, he fell out of favor with the newer appointees after taking senior status, retired completely without having been assigned any more cases, and recently underwent surgery for a stomach tumor. Seeing he was bored in retirement, his daughter and caregiver, Amelia (Robyn Coffin), suggested he do pro bono work, and quite uncharacteristically, he agreed. That is how we come to find him in the first scene meeting in his home with Tanya (Echaka Agba), a black single mother who spent three months in prison for smuggling weed to her boyfriend, also in prison, and her teenage son, Rasheed (Andrew Muwonge).
Lawrence says Tanya’s lawyer was a mentally unstable drunk, which is why he advised her badly, and she accepted too harsh a sentence. He claims he is helping her because shoddy legal work offends him, and he does seem passionate about that. It just so happens that the job Tanya lost while in prison was that of nursing home assistant, and since Lawrence is still recovering, she fills that position for him. Amelia is glad, though a little troubled at being displaced, and stresses over the expected arrival of her brother, Ben (Benjamin Sprunger), who has been on a spiritual journey in Mysore. Lawrence has nothing but contempt for that, and we start to see the real conflict.
Ben suffers from clinical depression, and from high school until three years ago (he’s thirty-eight now), had been a heroin user and dealer. Lawrence hypocritically rescued him from major legal trouble, but never disguised his contempt or apparently offered any treatment. Even now, when Ben is trying to do the right thing by searching for a job as a baker and getting out in the world, Lawrence makes clear that if he’s not going to be a conventional professional with advanced college degrees, he may as well have not sobered up at all. To Ben and Amelia, it is clear that Lawrence has adopted Tanya and Rasheed as his new family out of spite and a desperate attempt to make up for his harshness towards other black people while in a position of power. From Lawrence’s perspective, he has spoiled Ben beyond hope, and would be better off with someone like Tanya who only needed to be rescued once. Poor Tanya and Rasheed are caught in the middle, trying to maintain both their dignity and this sweet and unexpected gig, and things get more awkward for them when Lawrence offers them the house.
Belber’s dialogue is often blunt, nearly to the point of characters saying “This is how I feel, for these reasons, and here’s what I am going to do about it.” Granted, it’s part of Lawrence’s character that he is used to pontificating, and Woodel finds a way of delivering which makes these lines an insufferable, yet strangle admirable part of the man. We see him use it for good on one occasion, but quickly understand how this trait made tender relationship more difficult. Woodel projects intense pain and pride, since Lawrence is unwilling to let go of habits that in his opinion made him a great judge, even though they are ruining his family, and his new friends have forced him to question whether he was even really a force for justice at all. Sprunger certainly captures all the behaviors in Ben that upset Lawrence so much. He bases his confidence on weak foundations, which inevitably get shaken, causing him to withdraw and become bitter. He has an inferiority complex, which Lawrence caused, inadvertently or not, which leads him to do rotten things, and then feel worse about himself. Throughout, Sprunger keeps Ben a pitiful character, who we worry for, but doubt will ever change.
Belber avoids exploring the possibility that Tanya or Rasheed will screw Lawrence over somehow. Agba and Muwonge have enough to worry about nursing their characters’ wounded pride, and always maintain a strong sense of honor. Muwonge does particularly well as a foil for Sprunger, while Agba channels Tanya’s nurturing spirit into her interactions with Woodel. Coffin’s Amelia is a character who is used to being ignored, and while patient about it, she finally runs out of endurance when she realizes she is being thrown out with her brother despite not sharing his failures; an arc Coffin handles deftly. The house being fought over, designed by Jeffrey Kmeic, is beautiful and realistically antiquated, with a nautical theme that includes paintings of tall ships battling. It’s the sort of old-fashioned belligerence appropriate for the play, and though Don’t Go Gentle’s plot is such a stretch that it requires its characters to be dysfunctional in precisely the right way, Estle manages his actors to achieve that precision.
Reviewed June 4, 2015
For more information, see Don’t Go Gentle’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Theatre Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $28; to order, call 773-975-8150. Play Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through July 12. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.