By Maxwell Anderson.

Directed by Jonathan Berry.

Produced by Griffin Theatre Company.

At The Den Theatre, Chicago.

An Exceptional Chicago Production.

Following upon its last two consecutive Jeff Award wins for “Best Production of a Play,” Griffin Theatre Company might well be in line for its third with its current revival of Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset. Written in 1935, and inspired by the infamous murder case of the 1920s in which two Italian anarchists and immigrants (Sacco and Vanzetti) were sentenced to death despite insubstantial evidence, Winterset tells the story of a young man’s search for the truth about his father, who, likewise, he believes was executed for a murder on false grounds. With few reservations, Griffin Theatre’s Winterset, a poetic and philosophical drama on justice and truth, is a near-perfect production.


Many years after his father’s execution, Mio (Maurice Demus) has arrived in New York city in search of the one man who might hold the truth to the events that led to the murder his father was alleged to have committed: Garth (Christopher Acevedo), a former gang member and a witness who was never called during his father’s trial. In a tenement house beside a riverbank under a bridgehead, Garth, his father Esdras (Norm Woodel), and his sister Miriamne (Kiayla Ryann) live in near-squalor, hiding from both the justice they occlude and Trock (Josh Odor), the threatening gang leader Garth knows is responsible for the aforementioned murder.

Before he manages to find Garth, Mio first finds Miriamne. Not knowing she is Garth’s sister, he immediately falls in love with her (of course!), and her with him (of course!). This will prove an obstacle for the determined young man, as, confronted with a chance to expose Esdras’ son Garth as an obstructer of justice, Mio acts mercifully to the family, prompted by his love for Miriamne. With the truth about his father now known to him but his name still not cleared, Mio’s quest for public justice might well be at an end, as Trock and his machine-gun toting henchmen draw in to silence the last courageous voice.


Notwithstanding its heart, Winterset is a dialogue-heavy, intellectual drama written in blank poetic verse: missing just one line, I found, can mean you’ve just missed an important discovery or a turn in the plot. And as I was moved more by the secondary ensemble roles than by our main protagonist’s quest, I would say that an audience’s appreciation of Anderson’s thoughtful discourse and poeticism is paramount to their full enjoyment of the production.

From the set design to the lighting to (most of) the acting, Griffin Theatre’s production, while not “riveting” or “spectacular,” is simple, honest, and beautiful. Joe Schermoly’s set design lets us feel the dingy, damp and claustrophobic conditions on the New York riverbank and its connected tenement—with the former’s sloping planks of wood, wobbly rail, and foggy air; and the latter’s tarnished, cast-iron stove and corroded pipes. And Alexander Ridger’s lighting complements this atmosphere nicely with both stark, blinding whites and incandescent, murky yellow glows.

Maurice Demus’ Mio is a sharp and tender young man, sympathetic in his diligence to justice and truth and his enduring love and respect for his father. If only he’d articulate better! His jaw, often clenched in resentment of the injustice and lies circling around him, is too much clenched! ‘lax thy jaw, sir, and let thy righteous anger flow forth!


Even granting this, however, the second act, in particular, shows him and the rest of the cast at their best. It is basically one long scene of revelations and allegations (highly suggestive of a court scene). Nearly the entire cast is crammed into Esdras’ tiny tenement, and Larry Baldacci’s Judge Gaunt—the judge who heard Mio’s father’s case and who has since gone slightly mad (from his repression of the truth, we are led to believe)—gives a long discourse on justice, truth, and the heavy responsibilities of a judge. Earlier this year I saw Baldacci in a production of The Seagull that I walked out of, sickened to heart by the sight—but, here!, Baldacci is an actor in his element: he is so captivating in his role that I’d declare it an injustice if he is not at least nominated for best actor. I don’t think I’ve ever found myself so immersed in a theatre scene: it was a rare moment of synchronicity on a Chicago stage, with the entire cast acting and reacting organically, fully immersed in the moment. And Baldacci was that moment’s anchor.

In a similar vein, Norm Woodel, as the Jewish nihilist Esdras, gives an oddly fascinating performance; “oddly” in that his performance is so subdued, so unaffected, so sublime, that it is almost uncanny how close he bridges the gap between naturalistic acting and simply being. Josh Odor, too, as Trock, gives a solid performance: one is reluctant to make the comparison to Christian Bale, so as to reserve the credit for Odor alone, but the similarities in both look, mannerism, and intensity are striking.

Winterset is certainly a political drama, but one that is more timeless than it is merely timely: Anderson composed his script with a keen and empathetic, poetic eye, and his voice is as sympathetic toward justice and truth as it is understanding toward those who hide from it with violence or fear. Under the guidance of director Jonathan Berry, Griffin’s production of Winterset is one of the few Chicago shows I’d say demonstrates the potential of theatre in Chicago.

Highly Recommended.

 August Lysy.

[email protected].

Reviewed on 27 November 2016.

Jeff Recommended.

Playing at The Den Theatre Upstairs Main Stage, 1323 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $36, with $31 tickets for students, seniors, and veterans. For tickets and information, call 866-811-4111, or visit Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through Friday, December 23rd (Additional showings: Saturday, December 17th at 3:00 p.m.; Tuesday, December 20th at 7:30 p.m.; and Wednesday, December 21st at 7:30 p.m.). Running time is two hours and thirty minutes with two ten-minute intermissions.