Review: “A Place in the Woods” (The Fine Print Theatre Company)

A Place in the Woods - Mike Rice (L) and Jacob Bond.
A Place in the Woods – Mike Rice (L) and Jacob Bond.

Show: A Place in the Woods

Company: The Fine Print Theatre Company

Venue: Profiles Theatre’s Alley Stage

Die Roll: 9

First things first, I should mention that I don’t normally like slice-of-life plays.  They are often times better suited to film than to the stage.  Realism, naturalism, etc., are no longer cutting-edge on the stage.  All too frequently Chicago storefront theatres present plays that ought to be produced in a different medium, as if they’d really rather be producing sitcoms or television dramas.

So, it was refreshing to see a production of what is essentially a kitchen-sink drama staged in a way that accentuated the realism in a heightened manner, making a much more dramatic piece than the basic premise would imply.

So, what was the basic premise?  Shaun (played by James Bould) returns to his rural Indiana hometown with his son (played by Jacob Bond) in tow.  Shaun’s mother (Barbara Berndt) is suffering from dementia and has been wandering the country roads.  This condition raises issues within the family’s present status as well as issues from the past which haunt all those involved.  Naturally, there are others involved, as well.  Mike Rice and Natasha Tsoutsouris round out the cast as Shaun’s brother and the town’s police chief, respectively.

Director Patrick Kenney’s staging combined with Katie-Bell Springmann’s set design created a situation wherein the audience is split in twain by a simple kitchen constructed primarily of white painted cardboard.  It is this stark simplicity that calls attention to what is going on between the actors and heightens the importance of the words penned by Erik Gernand.

At the crux of this play is Shaun’s homosexuality.  It is openly acknowledged by his immediate family.  But, the locals of Hunter, Indiana don’t know.  That creates a bit of a difficulty when dealing with Tsoutsouris’s character, who was once Shaun’s date to the prom.  It also raises the topic of rural conservatism, and how urbanites make assumptions about it.

An act of violence years ago toward Shaun’s closeted high school love interest haunts just about every member of the family for various reasons.  Only Alex (Shaun’s son) isn’t part of that event, but his discovery of it, and curiosity around it, is that moves the plot.

This is a point at which I have to mention I think this play is really good art.  And I think it is well worth seeing.  I also have to mention, that I did not enjoy this play, per se.  I actively disliked a couple of the characters, and actively disagreed with many of the character decisions.  But, that is part of the beauty of the piece.  It made me have visceral reactions to the topics at hand.  And that, right there is art.

I am about five to seven years younger than the main character, and am likely to be in many of the situations that he found himself throughout the play.  I spent much of the last decade as a single parent and while my parents aren’t yet elderly or suffering from the diseases of the mind which can afflict humans as we age, they might.  And while I would be mortified if I handled the situations in the play in the manner which the characters did, I still identified in a way that made me reflect on a whole lot of what-ifs.  I think that’s an immensely successful piece of art.

I left the theatre not knowing how I felt about it.  And, in truth, not feeling great about it.  However, I also left thinking about it actively… and remained doing so for the following 36 hours or so.  In my estimation, that makes it a great play.  The acting was more than solid.  Each actor in the show could be singled out for a job well done.  The production quality was high.  Even though the set is made of ultra-low budget materials, the show itself in no way feels cheap.  And the message of the play lingers for days, if not longer.

My one gripe, which keeps this play from my highest rating, is that the script itself contains a number of false endings.  The play could have ended in three or four different places and been an even stronger piece.  Or, the scenes could have been written differently so as to not have a button on the end multiple times.  Otherwise… really good.  Yup.

Runs through May 4th.  More info at Theatre In Chicago.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Intense memories drive guilt-filled family conflict.  Parenting is hard.

RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”