By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Krissy Vanderwarker
Produced by Shattered Globe Theatre, Chicago
At Theater Wit, Chicago
A Fun Romp through Life’s Ups and Downs
I was told once by a teacher that time seems to speed up as you get older. Others may disagree, but I’ve found it to be true, and apparently so do playwright Jordan Harrison and director Krissy Vanderwarker. The Grown-Up, which is now in its Chicago premiere by Shattered Globe after debuting at the Humana Festival, uses fantasy to explore that feeling surprise at how quickly life changes. Combined with a whimsically energetic ensemble and colorful design, The Grown-Up is cute and delightful.
Kai Sheerwood (Kevin Viol), who shares his name with the protagonist of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, is a nine-year-old who enjoys listening to his grandfather’s (Ben Werling) tall tales. One day, he learns the story of how a glass doorknob on the pantry is actually a magical crystal from a mermaid figurehead on a pirate ship. By affixing it to a door, he can step through to any place or time in the world, but cannot control which. After his little sister Annabelle (Christina Gorman) bugs him to play with her, Kai takes the doorknob and is transported to his own future.
As a writer in his late twenties, Kai is pitching ideas to Mr. See (Joseph Wiens), a TV producer. Unfortunately, Mr. See. is a fan of “counter-context programing” and only likes concepts he can use buzzwords to classify, while Kai is a more idealistic artist. Mr. See is assisted by Rosie (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), whose real purpose is to maintain the reality needed for a magical item user. Upon finding the doorknob, Kai begins remembering he just stepped through the portal instead of reaching this age naturally, and decides to move on despite Mr. See’s protests that he will only go further and further on. Kai next wakes up in his forties in bed next to a younger boyfriend (Bryan Bosque), again temporarily oblivious to having time-hopped. But Annabelle is in hot pursuit, and determined to bring him back.
The six-person cast change characters and narrate each other’s inner monologues from outside the playing space. This style of delivery allows for plenty of humor and irony, and distances the audience from the action, which is helpful in a piece about reflecting on life. Krissy Vanderwarker’s direction keeps the action moving quickly enough for us to understand the time jumps, but still allows almost every scene to complete its emotional arc. Costume designer Sarah Jo White has attired the cast in bright, pastel colors, which look playful but stop just short of clownish. Scenic designer Grant Sabin’s abstract design includes a rainbow of colored ropes connecting a door to a series of knobs in a way that looks like a stage rigging system. Not only are these choices pretty to look at and reminiscent of childhood, but they also reinforce the play’s self-referral.
Since the actors spend most of the show playing children or exaggerated characters, they often are near-caricatures, while still preserving the play’s weightier themes. Viol has to play a man at every stage in life, and develops Kai into a jaded author of stories like this very play, though he still retains a little of the child in him. Bosque plays the cabin boy who brought the crystal to Kai’s grandparents’ house, and while I found these scenes unsatisfactory in terms of plot and theme, I enjoyed Bosque’s performance. He was wonderful as Kai’s boyfriend in a scene in which his feelings for his lover change from bemusement to exasperation and fear. Gorman also plays a character at two very different stages in life, though we don’t see her in-between state. She’s as lovable a little girl as an old lady, and Annabelle’s purity of heart, a virtue common in fairy tales but hard to capture in an engaging way, is always evident.
Overall, I found the imaginative power in this piece heartwarming. I had less patience for the scenes not directly related to Kai and Annabelle; Rosie exists mainly to have an epiphany the other characters later reach on their own after she has been removed from the action, and the developments on the pirate ship don’t provide any new information. But they are fun to watch, establish atmosphere, and in only seventy-five minutes, we’re never pulled away from the main story for too long. I think most people who have a sibling will recognize Kai and Annabelle’s relationship, and share his surprise at how much life changes without your being conscious of it. The wisdom of the author’s message is debatable. I don’t think childhood “innocence” is an ideal state. But I do think it’s nice to be reminded sometimes to examine our own stories.
This show has been Jeff Recommended.
For more information, see The Grown-Up’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $33 with discounts for students, seniors, and “under 30;” to order, call 773-975-8150 or visit www.theaterwit.org. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 3:00 pm through May 23, with an additional performance on May 23 at 3:00 pm. Running time is seventy-five minutes with no intermission.