Written by Richard James Zieman
At Athenaeum Theatre
Revised production still flawed but absorbing
“It’s got to stop,” says the grandmother of 3-year-old Deonta Howard, who was injured along with 13 others in another Chicago South Side shootout yesterday (September 19). North Siders seem to think of themselves as living in a different city entirely to separate themselves from the ignominy of living in the city with the highest rates of gun-related violence in the country. In an attempt to shock us out of our complacency, new-to-the-scene writer Richard Zieman brings us a bracing story set in Chicago’s West Side. Reworked from it’s 2012 debut*, Inglis Hall Production’s The Last Hand has upped the ante and refined the writing so that this new version is less, if you’ll forgive the pun, ham-handed.
Ruled over by the megalomaniacal “Pharaoh,” (Jonah Winston), the various players in this literal and figurative poker game are each seeking a different—rather pathetic—brass ring. This is a world where one of the best promises a leader can make is that his followers live long enough to die of old age. Despite a name that would imply the worship of Ra, Pharoah sees himself as acting with the hand of God.
Perhaps well aware that a Pharaoh’s retainers were buried with him, some various members of his gang are plotting their escape from his thrall. Would-be rapper Angel (Michael Lara) has conspired with tagger Miguel (Daniel Robert Rosenstrauch) to rig the Pharaoh’s regular poker game with some counterfeit bills and a fall guy named El Grito (Sir Jove). “Clip” (Anthony Conway), the Pharaoh’s personal body guard and Angel’s blood brother, catches wind of the scheme and must make a decision as to whose side he will be on if and when the plot comes to fruition.
Much of the drama of Hand revolves around the “Will they or won’t they” dynamic as the screw is slowly turned and stakes are raised. Poker is certainly not a new trope for metaphorical explorations of the dynamics of destiny and free will. That’s even acknowledged refreshingly and directly by Hand.
There are still some sophomoric touches (this is Zieman’s second production) to this update. Some exposition is ponderously overdone, particularly in regards to the revelations of these character’s back stories. The actual grift doesn’t really come across clearly, and it’s best to just ignore the details and focus on the threatening tone that pervades all. An air of menace is expertly maintained by Winston, who creates a bombastic character who can turn moods on a dime—a truly terrifying paterfamilias. Moments of levity come via Jove’s over-the-top El Grito, a spastic wild card (joker?) in the deck.
Inspired by an actual person in Zieman’s life, Hand is an ultimately compelling portrait of people trying to escape the system that they are too aware will lead to an early grave if they fail. More importantly, it’s a portrait of the bonds of friendship that even the damned can forge. Even if it’s in the safety of a theatre, this visit to the West Side will inspire a similar bonding experience amongst all the sides of Chicago to address the bloody hand that’s been dealt.
*This was originally called The Last Game.
Review by Clint May
Date Reviewed: September 19, 2013
At Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave, Chicago, IL 60657, call 773.935.6860, or tickets $25, $15 student/senior, Thursdays thru Saturdays 7:30pm, Sundays 2pm, running time is 2 hours 10 minutes with one 15 minute intermission, through October 20.