Directed by Shade Murray
At A Red Orchid Theatre, Chicago
Games, games, and more games fuel the McKee clan’s Thanksgiving Day holiday
Talented Chicago playwright Brett Neveu has penned a most dysfunctional family play, which echos Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but makes gamesmanship into an art form. Is this family real, or invented characters manipulated for humor, satire, and extreme parody? Are the McKee’s insane or are they real folks caught up in Waiting For Godot-type circular events? Whatever Pilgrim’s Progress actually is, it surly feeds off the manic, almost delusional performance by Michael Shannon as Jim, with deadpan droll humor from Kirsten Fitzgerald as Melissa, his wife. The extreme “George and Martha” types don’t bicker, but reinforce each other’s dynamics through references to life contracts and wordplay.
It’s Thanksgiving Day and Jim is cooking his secret cranberry sauce while using theatre quotes to communicate his weird thoughts. He is a failed actor now teaching acting at a local college. Melissa does her part in the wacky gamesmanship via psychological bits from her therapy sessions with her patients. The over-written early scenes contain loads of wacky humor, and the over-the-top style (especially from Shannon) sets a perplexing tone that only get more bizarre as the play progresses. Rania (Charlotte Mae Ellison) is the teenage pregnant daughter who survived the bombing of an abortion clinic that led her to keeping the baby. She is seven months along now. She mostly listens to Jim and Melissa’s games.
When Desmond (Ryan Bourque) arrives from college, the family is complete. They argue over content and terms of their family-governing contracts. Desmond, immersed in Transcendentalists beliefs as he majors in soil science, seems withdrawn from the games, at first. He gets irritated when his parents try to gross him out by explaining, in detail, the sex orgy that resulted in his conception.
The weirdness keeps exploding as Melissa tells the story of what happened to a player in Jim’s college production of The Glass Menagerie Rania’s aversion to blood, and how Rania got pregnant. I’ll not say more so as not to spoil the absurdity.
I didn’t laugh at Pilgrim’s Progress much because the extreme style played against the atmosphere of reality just didn’t work for me. At the opening night production, folks either roared with laughter or sat stoically wondering what this play was about. Once the absurd situations reached their zenith, I realized what Neveu was going for, but by that time his play wore me out. It took me awhile to realize my problem with Pilgrim’s Progress. Why or what was the reason the McKees constantly played their absurd games? Are they all insane, or simply playwright manipulated characters? The realism of the set and the atmosphere caused my conflict.
But the terrific performances by Michael Shannon and Kristen Fitzgerald with spirited work by Ryan Bourque and Charlotte Mae Ellison gave the show depth. Humor reigns with large doses of theatrical references plus psychological bits told through absurdity. I admire the acting here, it’s the lack of motivation of the McKees that rendered the comedy silly and over-the-top. You’ll either love or hate Pilgrim’s Progress but you’ll definitely love film star Michael Shannon’s manic efforts.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: November 9, 2015
For more info checkout the Pilgrim’s Progress page at theatreinchicago.com
At A Red Orchid, 1531 N. Wells, Chicago, IL, call 312-943-8722, www.aredorchidtheatre.org, tickets $30 -$35, Thursdays at 8 pm, Fridays at4 & 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 & 8 pm, Sundays at 3 & 7 pm,running time is2 hours with intermission,through December 13, 2015