By Deirdre Kinahan
Directed by Joanie Schultz
Produced by Irish Theatre of Chicago
Playing at The Den Theatre
What Happens After a Family Tragedy
At the same time Haven Theatre is exploring negligent parenting in the American premiere of the British play The Distance, the Irish Theatre of Chicago is presenting the horrifying opposite extreme in the American debut of Deirdre Kinahan’s Spinning. Recounted after the fact, Spinning tells the story of how a man’s pride and parental obsession led to the death of an innocent, and the ruin of his and several other peoples’ lives. The production directed by Joanie Schultz is as inquisitive as it is disturbing, zeroing in on the thorny question of what exactly to do with a person who has shown themselves to be capable of rash, destructive action after the law is finished with them. Her cast’s performances make the question one of immediate consequence.
We first see Conor Burke (Dan Waller) on a cliff in a small town in Ireland, not far from a locally-owned café. The owner, Susan (Jodi Kingsley), knows at once he is in an extremely bad state of mind, and there’s a part of her that wants to tell him to jump. Only a part, though; when Conor directly asks if she wants him to, she admits she’s not that cruel. Newly released after four years in prison, Conor says he’s come to explain to her how exactly her daughter died, and though Susan dreads giving him the chance to win her sympathy, she’s too curious to stop him from talking. Her first question is whether he and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Annie (Tyler Meredith), were lovers. No, Conor answers, still capable of being a little insulted, she’s not who he was jealous of. Susan can’t help being a little disappointed to learn Annie wasn’t even the main figure in her own fatal tragedy, but she soon learns that the girl wasn’t just a by-stander, either.
Conor met Annie while his relationship with his girlfriend, Jen (Carolyn Kruse), was getting serious, but since Jen was engaged to someone else at the time, he was reluctant to tell Annie all about her. Annie mistook that as shyness, and though Conor corrected her right away, she developed a crush on him. In fact, Conor pushed Jen hard to make their affair public, and she did once she was pregnant, but that was about the extent to which she ever heeded his demands. Conor came from money and was bored by it; what he really wanted was to re-create his tight-knit family. Jen was just the opposite; she valued her career, got bored by her husband and daughter’s company, and felt stifled by her in-laws. Meanwhile, Annie was feeling stifled by her mother, too, and admired how much more Conor seemed to care about his daughter than the ever-busy single mother and business owner Susan did for her. But when Jen announced that she wanted a divorce, and that she intended to take daughter, house, and assets all for herself, Conor was determined to prove that when he said he wouldn’t live without his daughter, he meant it.
Even though large parts of the story are told from Conor’s point of view, Dan Waller plays him as clearly troubled. Even at his best, Conor was overly excitable, self-indulgent, and seldom listened to anyone, and as his life falls apart, he becomes downright scary. After prison, he’s a broken man. But it’s believable that Meredith’s Annie would allow herself to be tricked by him. She’s sheltered and naïve, but thinks her teenage acting out makes her worldly. She’s also compassionate, and Conor really is being screwed over, if the divorce proceedings happened anything like he says they did. Kinahan has pointed out that divorce has only been legal in the Republic of Ireland since 1997, and the country is especially bad at dealing with fathers’ rights. When Conor demands Jen justify why she gets everything and he gets nothing, she just responds that that’s the way people do things.
Still, the play hardly vindicates Conor. In almost all of her scenes, Susan demands accountability from him, and Kingsley captures the intensity of her loss and frustration every time. At first, he is resistant, but in time, he becomes more honest with himself as well as her. Grant Sabin’s scenic design is a heavily raked stage, on which Schultz has literally given Susan the high ground. Though we get a sense early on of what happened, the mystery elements still provide enough suspense to keep the audience engaged for the show’s hour and a half run-time. Kinahan provides some obvious pointers to how the legal system and society need to change to prevent the kind of situation seen here, but she doesn’t pretend to have easy answers for what people should do after horrible crimes are committed. That’s highly personal in any case, but Spinning does a fine job of presenting us with one such story.
Reviewed May 27, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Spinning’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $26-30; to order, visit irishtheatreofchicago.org. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through July 3. Running time is ninety-five minutes with no intermission.