Chicago Theater Review: SYCAMORE (Raven Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 15, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Loved ones seen in stasis are probably truer to most families. No clans are ever collectively happy or purposeful, only the members and not, of course, all the time. But, however accurate its depiction  of mutual dysfunction, a play about paralyzed characters is not intrinsically dramatic. Take Sycamore. There are plenty of promising possibilities within Sarah Sander’s intimate and often affecting world premiere at Raven Theatre. But either an inconclusive ending or a missing middle deny the audience “closure” and make these 75 minutes seem truncated and unfulfilled.

But not misdirected: Devon de Mayo, who honors the complexities of adolescent angst, is fine at motivating six actors to “get” what they’re given. That is a “coming of age” one-act about siblings who play games, literally taking things from each other as they compete for the boy next door. Celia Jacobs (Selina Fillinger) is a wanna-be actress and/or cheerleader who yearns for love but doesn’t want to lead guys on. But she’s tempted by exotic John Keller (Johnathan Nieves), who likes her back but can’t figure out his next move. His decency gets in the way of his impulses, a contest between pragmatism and passion that’s fascinating to follow.

John is equally prized by Celia’s troubled gay brother Henry (Julian Larach). Too recently not to cause concern, this unstable and insecure kid has driven dangerously. A frustrated performer, he has a penchant for borrowing and wearing his sister’s stuff. It would be nice to think that when Henry is “off his meds,” he’s not really himself—but the sad thought is that he is. But he loves watching Fellini films with kindly (but inescapably heterosexual) John. Then he can indulge in make-believe that, fondly and forlornly, he hopes will spill over into real affection.

Drawn less sharply, the adults are the Jacob partners—caretaker Louise (Robyn Coffin), drifting in place between tough love and giving up, and line-cook dad David (Tom Hickey), accepting his children’s pushbacks because he’s resigned to his ineffectuality. Finally, John’s newly divorced mother Jocelyn (Jaslene Gonzalez) serves as a second mom for Henry and offers the boys a safe place where they needn’t prove anything to anyone. What poignantly connects the parents is their worry that Henry may once more dissolve or erupt into depression.

Having introduced these characters, Sander seems uninterested or unable to push them into the present. They seem mired in memories, obsessed with Celia’s fiasco-laden dramatic debut where, pursuing his own private phantoms, Henry managed to sabotage her artistic ambitions. The parents visit the land of what might have been as often as the land of the living.

But, even seen stuck, Sander’s six characters are sympathetic survivors. The isolation of each is made more painful by what surrounds it, the constant presence of stymied love. As E.M. Forster said, “Only connect.”

But that impasse, left unresolved at the end by the author’s uncompromising honesty or her own blockage, doesn’t exactly deliver a processed play. No question, every drama turns us into eavesdroppers but, with Sycamore, you’ll wish you had spied on these folks a little bit longer.

photos by Dean La Prairie

Raven Theatre Company
6157 N. Clark St. (at Granville)
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sat & Sun at 3:30 (check schedule)
ends on April 29, 2017
for tickets, call 773.338.2177 or visit Raven Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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