Chicago Theater Review: LUTHER (Steep Theatre)

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by Kristin Walters on January 29, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Ethan Lipton’s Luther received rave reviews when it premiered in New York last June, yet it enjoyed only a brief run. So it makes sense that Steep Theater would want to try out the dark satire on Chicago and see if it sticks. Unfortunately due to an unfocused script and misguided direction, it probably won’t.

The story lives in a world not unlike our own, but instead of adopting puppies and orphans, people have the opportunity to take in PTSD-suffering war veterans. The show starts strong as married couple Marjorie (Kendra Thulin) and Walter (Peter Moore) prepare for the latter’s company holiday party. The two fire cute quips at each other, bickering about their jobs, financial situation and who will watch their adopted trouper Luther (Michael Salinas) when they go on vacation.  While keeping Luther much of a mystery throughout the scene, Lipton expertly explores the escalating tensions in Marjorie and Walter’s marriage; the button-pushing dialogue is an emotional mine-field; and the established tautness is as palpable and engrossing as a ticking time-bomb: Will it explode or be defused?

Kristin Walters’ Stage and Cinema review of Steep Theatre’s LUTHER

But once the couple arrives at the party with infantilized battle-scarred adoptee in tow, the play bifurcates dramatically and loses a lot of momentum. While Walter spends his time in vacuous conversations with coworkers, Marjorie, desperately wanting to believe they have rehabilitated Luther, lets him off on his own to enjoy the party. Luther’s personality registers somewhere between a child and a dog with a bit of psychosis sprinkled into the mix; with Luther unsupervised, trouble ensues.

Despite the fake tattoos and the scar slashed across his cheek, Michael Salinas has too sweet a face to play Luther. He’s more cuddly Golden Retriever than scrappy Pit Bull, so when he ultimately attacks partygoer Morris (an amazingly dorky Jim Poole) and police officer Captain James (Alex Gillmor), it’s just too unbelievable to elicit fear or sympathy.

Peter Moore has proven his acting chops in numerous Chicago productions so I am blaming Director Joanie Schultz for producing the insincere, detached tone used by all the actors. Kendra Thulin’s lines sound particularly strained and watching her work becomes exhausting.  It’s as if neither the puppets nor the adopted war veteran is enough of a hint that the play is satirical, Schultz has to mess with the characters as well.

Did I mention there are puppets? There are puppets. There doesn’t need to be puppets.

Kristin Walters’ Stage and Cinema review of Steep Theatre’s LUTHER

Set designer Chelsea Warren’s minimalist sets were a bit too minimal. I would like to see the differences in this alternate universe. At the party, Marjorie claims that wearing pork-scented perfume has become popular and it would have been nice if Warren had colored the décor with this kind of strange detail.

At the end of the day, Luther is two plays not particularly well integrated nor developed. One is about the complexities of social interactions – including Marjorie and Walter’s marriage – and the other is about returning war vets and their struggles. Lipton has a knack for dry understated humor, clearly seen in lines like, “You smell hungry” and “He really is the kindest soul you ever met; He makes birthday cards from scratch, he loves radio.” But its witty dialog and intricate relationships can’t make up for what the play lacks thematically. And these elements certainly can’t make up for the puppets.

photos by Lee Miller

Steep Theatre
scheduled to end on March 2, 2013
for tickets, call (866)811-4111 or visit

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