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Dorothy Chansky

Charge of the Guilt Brigade

Kenn E. Head, Jon Hill, Shannon Cochran and Lea Coco in "The Unmentionables" by Bruce Norris, directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Review of "The Unmentionables"
Steppenwolf Theatre
1650 North Halsted Sreet
Chicago, Illinois 60614
June 29-August 27, 2006
Box Office: (312)335-1650 or www.steppenwolf.org

In 1936 the Federal Theatre Project produced "It Can't Happen Here," a stage version of Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel. Lewis limned America facing a rising fascist leader in populist clothing. While most of the play's well-meaning citizen characters accepted or even embraced violence and coercion as the nouveau status quo, Lewis's hero and heroine saw the light and joined the resistance.

Fast forward to our own times and Bruce Norris's "The Unmentionables." The play, now in its world premiere at Steppenwolf, also stages a confrontation between educated American citizens with good intentions and a government fueled by torture, nepotism, and the systematic maintenance of a permanent underclass. What do Norris's heroes do? Well, they don't join the freedom fighters or go underground. They barely even leave the air conditioning, although that doesn't mean they don't feel guilt.

"The Unmentionables" is set in a fictional African country where two American couples come together in the wake of a fire of suspicious origin. Dave and Jane are young idealists running a Christian school for poor children. The school is the target of arson. With their living quarters and workplace gone, the teachers are taken in by Don, a wealthy, sixtyish manufacturer, and his materialistic, self-absorbed, fiftyish wife, Nancy. Don and Nancy's stylish and comfortable home is the corner of the world we see; the barbed wire atop their garden wall is the only decorative clue as to what lies beyond.

The play opens with Jane suffering an attack of fibromyalgia and being ministered to by an African born but American-educated doctor. Actor Kenn E. Head's oscillation between incisiveness and spaciness captures the doctor's cultural Catch 22. The earnest evangelical, Dave, meanwhile tries to reason with teenage Etienne, who is the prime suspect for the crime. Things heat up when Etienne requests a bathroom break and escapes through the window. Enter Aunty Mimi, a high-placed government official, and her machine gun toting guards. Ora Jones's performance as the finger-snapping, order-barking, iron fist in a scented velvet glove Mimi is one of the production's high points.

Norris efficiently displays the shifting alliances among all the main characters, and director Anna D. Shapiro devices deft staging to support the various bondings and retreats. Aunty Mimi sees Dave's school for what it is, namely coercive proselytizing, yet she supports it much as she does Don's exploitative factory. (Both American endeavors deploy minimal consumer comfort to recruit converts to "democracy" and "civilization.") The doctor ministers to the wealthy whites, but he points out that no one in his part of the world has the sorts of diseases for which Jane fears travel without prescriptions. Don and Nancy are hospitable to their compatriots, but the high minded and high handed Dave doesn't hesitate to diss the industrialist's politics to his face, calling Don's ilk "the moral equivalent of pimps." Jane resists everyone's remarks that she looks familiar until someone finally remembers specifically why: Jane has walked away from a successful TV show to minister to the poor of Africa. As the doctor says in what is one of the plays many unsubtle "message" lines, "could you find no poor in your country?" The rich side uneasily with the rich, aware that they also need to ally themselves with the poor, either because of shared heritage, the desire to help, or an interest in making money. When Jane imperiously informs Aunty Mimi that Americans don't use torture devices like the one just she has just unwrapped, Aunty Mimi locates her glasses and reads the item's manufacturer's label: "Made in Lansing, Michigan, USA."

When Dave rushes out in a moral snit, panic ensues. Lea Coco achieves a good balance between holier-than-thou and just plain naïve in his performance. Jane starts to crack as news arrives that Dave has gotten into a stranger's car. Things escalate as calls to his cell phone go unanswered for several hours. Actress Shannon Cochran goes persuasively from star on a mission for meaningfulness to -- when she fears the worst -- desperate Californian who can't stand one more minute of mud or natives. The straw that breaks the Hollywood missionary's back is the two tall guards with machine guns staring at her on their break from beating a suspect. As she lets loose with a string of racist invective, it turns out that they are staring at her because they recognize her from her television role. Who's paranoid now?

Todd Rosenthal's beautiful and maneuverable set provides the perfect place for the first world vs. third world standoff. The hardwood floor, handwoven rug, oversized wicker chairs, lovely windowseat with tastefully colorful cushions, decoratively hung mosquito netting, ensuite bathroom, private office, and elegant coffee table all come into play. They are, of course, signifiers of privilege, but many do service as something the homeowners don't want poor blacks too near, or to mask ugly activities.

Despite a classy looking production, though, the play still emerges as hamfisted and wanting to package its guilt-trip as urban chic. Clearly the American characters are meant to make the audience examine its own complicity in global hunger and economic exploitation. This project is undermined by Amy Morton's overblown performance as Nancy, the sex-starved colonialist consumer who drinks too much, can't stop yakking, and resists accusations of being a bimbo by flashing her membership card in Mensa. It would have been much more discomfiting to actually find contact points and sympathy with this character. The production also features an offensive framing device in which Etienne, played by the talented college aged actor Jon Hill, enters through the audience before the lights go down with low-rider jeans nearly falling off, brand new hightops, headphones, and a wifebeater teeshirt. Clearly he is not one of "us," and he tells us that the show we are about to see isn't worth our time or money, as it won't be fun. This comes off less as an introduction to the proceedings than as what it really is: a manipulative bid for discipline masquerading as creating a bond. When Etienne emerges from being tortured and taking his curtain call to cap off the evening with an "I told you so," it seemed like a cheap shot at putatively reinforcing guilt. Actually it was congratulating ticketbuyers on their sophisticated viewing choice. After all, if we had taken the character seriously at the outset, the show could not have gone on.

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