By Simon Stephens
Directed by Jonathan Berry
Produced by Griffin Theatre Company
At Raven Theatre
Poignant working class British drama becomes a star marker
Set in the rust belt suburb of Stockport near Manchester, England, Port dramatizes the struggle for survival that consumes Rachel Keats (a tour de force performance by Caroline Neff). We meet her from age 11 through age 24 as she deals with her and her precocious brother Billy (energetic work by Joey deBattencourt) surviving being abounded by their mother and being stuck with a mentally unstable father.
We grow empathetic with her flight as growing into womanhood and helping Billy adjust to his ‘nicking’ (stealing) ways. Along her journey Rachel makes plans – like getting her own apartment to get away from her dad that necessitates a cash loan from her grandmother Lucy (Alex Knell). She moves from sweet-talking Lucy to shoving chocolate down her throat and rifling through her purse since Lucy refuses to make the loan. That is the first hint that Rachel is a driven and determined survivor.
We see she he early flirtatious side with encounters with Chris (Rob Fenton) and her fist meetings with Danny (Andrew Swanson). Danny sure ‘fancies’ Rachel who’d rather have a more daring man which eventually leads to an abusive marriage to Kevin (John Byrnes) – a man similar emotionally to her father.
When Kevin’s abuse becomes unbearable, Rachel returns to Stockport with a new plan. First, she tries to lure Danny away from his wife and baby, to no avail. Next, she meets with Billy to try one last time to motivate him from being arrested again for thievery and prison. She tells him of her plan to leave Stcokport for an education.
These adventures are all to common dilemmas facing poor abandoned British youths where lack of opportunity prevails many into a lifetime of poverty. Playwright Simon Stephens has the language, the mannerism and the blind hopes and dreams of these troubled souls down. He uses stark realism and street language to establish authenticity while he infuses enough optimism that the strength of the human spirit will fuel Rachel (and her kind) into a decent life.
Caroline Neff plays Rachel most effectively as she moves Rachel from questioning child to shallow teen to a determined to survive woman. We buy Neff in all these transformations. This tour de force performance carries the drama. Neff gets help from Joey deBettencourt’s manic, yet fun Billy and from Andrew Swanson’s strong yet understated Danny.
Port’s cast sport richly thick Manchester working class accents that take some ‘tuning into.’ The brisk pacing and energy of the production nicely fits into a story of young people’s struggle to survive in a hostile society not equipped to aid the uneducated poor. Rachel exudes passion, determination and adaptability. We know that she’ll make it somehow and we are glad since we have been quietly cheering for he all evening. Port is worth a trip.
At Raven Theatre’s West Stage, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL, www.griffintheatre.com, tickets $32, Friday and Saturday at 8:30 pm, Sundays at 3:30 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission, through February 26, 2011