REVIEWSTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

Fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life

By Sarah Gubbins

fml:  how Carson McCullers saved my life at Steppenwolf Theatre
fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life

Directed by Joanie Schultz

Produce by Steppenwolf for Young Adults

At Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

The World Premiere, written for the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program, by Sarah Gubbins, fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life, unfolds as a true-to-life story of  a teen lesbian attending a private Catholic school in suburban Chicago. With only five characters, aided by large video screens showing the constant text messaging,  as well as the cartoon stories by the principal character, fml accurately depicts contemporary teen life. With dialogue containing over use of words such as “totally” and “like, ” and with generous use of texting in that strange vernacular found on most teen smartphones, playwright Sarah Gubbins sure plays to the crowd of high schoolers attending the performances.

fml:  how Carson McCullers saved my life at steppenwolf theatre

This production paints a broad picture of Jo (engaging and honest Fiona Robert – herself a high school senior) – the butch, short-haired, basketball playing lesbian girl. We like Jo since she is almost saintly as she never judges anyone, she is kind-hearted, sincere, smart, and compassionate about her sport, her studies, and her art. She is out and honest and secure about who she is; all rare traits in teens.

fml:  how Carson McCullers saved my life

She strongly relates to author Carson McCullers’  “Heart is a Lonely Hunter” in that it deals with how it is to feel so alone while still hunting for love and acceptance.  In Jo’s world, only a few people are close to her:  Mickey (Ian Daniel McLaren) is the gay boy who be friends and supports her unconditionally while Emma (Zoe Levin) is the straight best friend who conditionally accepts Jo. Ms. Delaney (Lily Mojekwu) is the English lit teacher who is a role model for Jo.  Lastly, Redd (Bradley Grant Smith) is Jo’s supportive brother.

We see how teen life is a constant struggle for group and personal acceptance. We see how Jo becomes a victim of hatred, first with derogatory words painted on her locker, than a locker room beating by  males students. Since Jo is a strong personality and she has loyal friends like Mickey and Ms. Delaney), we know that she’ll thrive in the long run. I think the play would get its message out better if Jo was more human, if she had a few flaws like most of us mortals.  Depicting her as a Joan of Arc only stretches credulity.

Still, the use of video was a tad too distracting as it divides our visual attention, also adds context as we see Jo and Mickey’s gay hero cartoons and we see Emma’s boyfriend’s constant texting designed to control her every move.  The audience of students at the performance I attended seem to enjoy and relate to the story as evidenced by the “talk-back.” Kudos to the teachers who bravely took their students to see a play dealing with such a controversial subject. The more students can talk openly about taboo subjects, the faster they can understand and effectively deal with them in a positive manner.


Tom Williams

Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: March 6, 2012

For more info checkout the fml page at


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