By Rinne Groff
Produced by The Gift Theatre
Turn off the TV (it’s all reruns anyway) and venture to The Gift Theatre.
This is the Chicago premiere of a five-year old play, and I am surprised The Gift Theatre is the first company to swoop up this provocative work examining the birth of television.
The opening moments of this production opened my eyes to how my life has been directed by TV, in spite of how I rarely watch it. The Ruby Sunrise is not perfect, but proves Rinnie Groff is rich with imagination. Television gives everyone an opportunity to peek into the lives of others (whether that be via news of situation comedy/drama). However, the viewer rarely thinks that he too may be viewed by strangers. In addition to television, Groff explores Joe McCarthy and The Red Scare; a common theatrical theme in the early 21st Century thanks to the Bush Administration.
The story begins in 1927 Indiana at a boarding house run by a spinster named Lois (the effectively subtle Alexandra Main). Her niece Ruby arrives unannounced, and keeps her past close to her. Ruby spends her time in the shed figuring out how to invent a box that can create images like the radio omits sound. Henry, a college student staying at the boardinghouse, notices and pursues Ruby romantically. The first half requires patience because it takes nearly 40-minutes to introduce 15-minutes of material. Ultimately, everything is setting up the climatic moment where Ruby and Henry are given unexpected life-altering news.
Sit tight and you will be rewarded as the dramatic action unfolds in 1952, New York City during the Golden Age of television. Here we meet playwright Tad Rose (Michael Patrick Thornton in a tortured performance that would make Eugene O’Neil proud). Rose is wrangled into TV writing, but artistically bankrupt until he meets muse Lulu Miles. Complications arise when business interferes with the process of making art. The two major snafus are a writer who allows budget to interfere with integrity, and The Black List inhibiting casting choices.
Director John Gawlik and his production team had ambitious goals, which helped and hindered this production. I applaud the creative use of limited space, but the many long scene changes hurt the overall flow, and gave me time to process the writing flaws. Scenic designer Ian Zywica nicely transformed the theater into an old time sound stage. John Horan’s lights enhanced the mood and tone of the play, as did the sound design by Christopher Kriz. Finally, I tip my hat to the greatly under utilized Liviu Pasare’s video design. I was hoping for more video in a play about television.
The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee, Chicago IL. call (773) 283-7071, tickets are $20(Thursdays & Sundays) $25 (Friday & Saturday Nights) $15 tickets are available at all performances for students, seniors, and industry with proper ID. Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:30pm. Running time is 2 hours with one ten-minute intermission. Through August 30.