By Dana Lynn Formby
Directed by Ilesa Duncan
Produced by Pegasus Players
Playing at the Leo Lerner Theatre
This world premiere play has plenty of heart but still no head.
Most plays when they fail to work do so because of a lack of sufficient texture: characters are too broadly drawn, the setting lacks detail and nuanced specificity, the dialogue skirts true feeling in favor of stagy declarations. In these respects, Dana Lynn Formby’s new play If You Split a Second—receiving its world premiere with the Pegasus Players—is not like most plays. But that doesn’t necessarily means that it works either.
If anything, If You Split a Second feels burdened by a density of expository detail, which like a thicket of thorns envelops Formby’s otherwise earnest story about violence, intimacy and the need for forgiveness. Her protagonist Mick Johnson (Dylan McGorty) is a man with much to look forward to. Recently promoted to supervising welder at his job, he’s married to an adoring wife Jane (Stephanie Chavara), and the two are raising a couple of kids. But when Mick, who has a menacingly violent temper, finds himself in prison for manslaughter after killing his sister’s sleazy boyfriend, Jane and her children must learn to forge their own way forward. Or at least through.
Formby’s play has its sole two actors assume several roles, including Mick’s brother, Patrick, a lawyer who marries Jane after Mick goes to prison; their sister, Amber; Mick and Jane’s only daughter, Geneva; and a passing stranger, John. Actors Dylan McGorty and Stephanie Chavara together do a sizable job shifting from character to character—and their chemistry on stage, especially as Mick and Jane, is considerably palpable—but after awhile the endless proliferation of adjunct narratives grows nauseating.
The emotional heart of Formby’s play is Mick’s relationship to his wife Jane, and in their scenes together, Formby (who aptly describes herself as a “blue-collar playwright”) succeeds admirably in capturing something effortlessly plainspoken and honest about their love. But the moment Mick goes to jail, the play loses steam. To compensate for the loss of the play’s emotional center, Formby tries rather shifting gears to Jane’s relationship with her new husband and the coming-of-age of her daughter, Geneva.
But the easy thing in these sort of plays is always to bring on more characters, more complications, more subplots—even if doing so only broadens the scope of the story rather than deepening it in any meaningful way. In fact, one gets the sleight impression that Formby is trying to “write away” or “write around” her true subject, as though the instigating wound were still too raw to be dealt with directly.
Plus If You Split a Second’s tendency to speak in a series of cascading first-person monologues—often expository and prone to philosophical wanderings—feels similarly evasive. Full to the brim with angst, potent feeling and sincere regret, these speeches achieve a kind of emotional frenzy which never quite carries over into the play’s actual dramatic scenes, which by comparison feel lethargic, underwritten and secondary. I was slightly disappointed that Formby’s characters never felt quite as intensely when talking to one another as they do when they speaking directly to us. Moreover, Formby’s ear for the terse vernacular of the American middle classes is so acute that when these extended speeches slip into more poetically lyrical ruminations on the nature of choice and time, they sound by comparison contrived and “writerly.”
If You Split a Second thus has at heart a tremendous amount of potent energy, but that energy is too thinly dispersed in this overwrought, overwritten and overcomplicated play. Clearing the thicket and reigning it in could only concentrate the emotional impact of this otherwise heartfelt story.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Tuesday, May 7th, 2013.
If You Split a Second runs until June 2nd, 2013. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/if-you-split-a-second/6330/.