By Neil Connelly
Directed by John Wilson
Produced by Under the Rug Theatre Company
Playing in The Den Theatre, Chicago
An Architect Learns to Love Uptown
Most theater companies declare they have some kind of intention to serve their community, but it’s nice to see a new addition that has formed as many contacts as Under the Rug Theater Company for its inaugural production. Ride, a world premiere by first-time playwright Neil Connelly, depicts the aftermath of a biker’s death in a car crash. It is being produced with the support of biking, health, and transportation-related organizations, but uses its setting in a bike shop as an entry point for exploring the economic situation and culture of Uptown. Of course, what theatre-patrons are mainly concerned with is whether it is a good drama, but on that count, they need not worry.
Owning and operating an Uptown bike shop was not the career the family of Cal Brennan, the dead man, had wanted for him. His brother, Danny (Todd Wojcik), and sister, Molly (Annie Prichard), take in the punk aesthetic of Brennan’s Bikes with dismay and disdain, wondering what Cal must have been thinking to forego the upper-middle class lifestyles they’ve enjoyed. Even more baffling to them is Quill (Rose Freeman), a woman with an adolescent disposition who Cal permitted to live in the back of the shop with the dubious justification that she is a valued employee. Quill asserts she is also the part-owner, and while the siblings find this laughable, Cal’s estate will take some time to settle. In the meantime, Danny surprises Molly by wanting to keep the shop operational, at least for the time being, and thinks it would be easier to not antagonize Quill. When she challenges him to bet ownership of the shop on whether he can make it into a more successful business than Cal, he accepts.
Connelly’s dialogue is a little clunky at the beginning of the play, when he’s setting up the culture clash, but it improves as his characters take over. Wojcik’s performance makes clear that, while Danny is proud of his accomplishments as an architect, he felt stifled by the corporate environment. At the shop, he meets Riley (Alex Dauphin), a young woman who is more sensible than Quill and was likely Cal’s lover, but doesn’t pretend to prioritize her work at the shop, and Dell (Abe Elmourabit), a scavenger who credits Cal with turning his life around. As he becomes more comfortable in Uptown, Danny begins to appreciate the notion that Dell’s current situation may really be a massive improvement over however he lived previously, and that Cal was doing some good here. They debate the justness of the economic situation and their perceptions of each other, with Dell taking the position that City Hall mugs Uptown every day, so its residents have as much reason to be fearful of Danny’s clean-cut office look as he does of Dell’s hobo get-up. Still, as much as Danny grows in his understanding of the way the other side lives, his professionalism is undoubtedly improving the shop’s finances.
Ride hinges on Rose Freeman’s character, and her performance, down to Quill’s scratchy voice, is absolutely convincing. Quill can be charming, in a child-like way, and Danny believes he is making progress with her. Their tragedy is that he doesn’t have enough experience with people like her to recognize that her behavior indicates depression and alcoholism, and that nagging and setting a good example for her won’t treat those problems. Neil Connelly has created a nuanced portrait of the intersection between young people who stayed middle-class, and those whose choices, lack of opportunities, or personal problems caused them to fall away from it. Director John Ross Wilson, who also designed the set, guides these characters along a journey that makes us empathize with them, while still recognizing the flaws on all sides. Ideally, this production would move to Uptown, since doing it in hipsterville complicates its message. But Ride also deserves to be in a venue where it will get attention, and hopefully, Under the Rug Theatre Company will continue to build on their success.
Playing at the upstairs Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $25. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 6:00 pm through April 3.