Directed by Shade Murray
Produced by Steep Theatre Company
Haunting new play about lonely people
You’ve probably seen advertisements for a number of campy, gory, comedic horror shows this Halloween season. Steep Theatre’s newest production is something quite different. The Vandal is humorous, but uses its spooky story as an opportunity to explore deeper emotions.
We open in Kingston, New York, on a cold evening much like the one we’ve just traveled through to reach the theatre. Onstage is an abstract representation of a bus stop. Nearby are a hospital, a liquor store, and a cemetery. A middle-aged woman (Kendra Thulin) just finished a disappointing visit to the hospital, and is waiting for the next bus. It will be a while. She’s already annoyed when she is approached by a talkative teenage boy (Jack Miggins), who is intent on oversharing his problems, philosophy, and gossip about school scandals. She’s not interested at first, but he’s clever and charming, and she’s clearly lonely. The boy has just visited his friend in the cemetery. There are a lot of his classmates buried there, but not all were his friends. His mom’s there, too.
His relationship with his father isn’t the best, so he could use some adult guidance. And, though the woman hates to admit this is a factor, he’s cute and flirting with her. So when he asks her to buy beer for him, how could she hold out for long?
From there, things get weird. The man at the liquor store (Alex Gillmor) says he’s the boy’s father, and that the boy is a liar about several things, including his mom being dead. But then, we knew the boy and his father were distant, maybe even hostile, so it’s not clear yet who we should believe. What’s weird is the man figures out that the woman is up to some deceptive practices of her own, besides buying beer for a teenager. She’s cagey about her identity, and why was she really at the hospital? It turns out there’s something really fishy about all these people, and due to loneliness and the resulting desire to bond in some rather inappropriate ways, they can’t stay out of each other’s business.
Director Shade Murray, who is new to Steep Theatre but accomplished elsewhere, has created a world that is not exactly menacing, but certainly mysterious. Set designer Dan Stratton’s abstract arrangement of black and white cubes and screens lets us focus on the characters, but contextualizes them in a stark, cold environment. The blocks reconfigure into three different locations as the actors move around them, leaving plenty of shadows and angles where people can lurk and disappear to. All three characters are the right balance of sympathetic and alarming to build tension, although the woman stays remarkably functional considering the amount of alcohol she consumes. Miggins gives an especially strong performance as the wily, kind of annoying, yet poignant glue between the more reserved adults. The play works as well as it does because we understand why the woman would take such strange risks for him.
It’s fine to have funny Halloween stories, but the most lasting experiences are those that trigger fears like loneliness and regret. All the characters are grieving, the mystery is why. The Vandal packs a lot into its short run-time, and rewards its audience for their investment. This is a good show if you want to break up the drinking and zombies for the early part of an evening sometime this fall.
At Steep Theatre, 1115 West Berwyn, Chicago, IL. Call 866-811-4111 for tickets or 773-649-3186 for general information, steeptheatre.com, tickets $10-35. Runs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights 8pm, October 2 through November 8, Sunday matinee October 12, 19, 26, and November 2 at 3pm. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.