Review: “Slowgirl”

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Sept. 1
Tickets: $20-$78
Phone: 312-335-1650

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Greg Pierce’s “Slowgirl” shows just how good a quiet little two-character play can be in the hands of the right director and actors. Sensitively directed by ensemble member Randall Arney, the 90-minute intermission-free piece brings together his fellow ensemble member William Petersen and Rae Gray as an uncle and niece who get to know each other over the course of a week under difficult circumstances.

One strength of Pierce’s writing is that he doesn’t go in for big melodramatic revelations. Instead, the details of each character’s story emerge slowly as they try to connect, alternately prodding and prickly as they pepper each other with questions and struggle to understand the answers. Although they’re very different on the surface, we — and they — come to realize that they really have a lot in common.

In 17-year-old Becky’s case, the crisis is immediate and acute. After a drunken party that went horribly awry back home in Massachusetts, resulting in a tragic accident involving a teenager named Mary Beth (the “slowgirl” of the title), she’s been implicated in what could be a criminal case, though she claims complete innocence. As a respite from police interrogations, she’s traveled to Costa Rica to visit her maternal uncle, Sterling, who retreated to the jungle to live some seven years earlier for reasons that aren’t clear.

A nonstop talker who describes herself as the most outgoing person in her school and seems incapable of filtering anything she says, Becky hides the truth and her feelings of guilt behind an aggressive persona, goading Sterling about his lifestyle and decision to isolate himself from everyone except the husband and wife who tend to his daily needs. He, in turn, gives the appearance of having achieved inner calm in a life of contemplation, reading, and a kind of atonement. He’s even built a labyrinth that he walks daily.

But all is not as it seems. As it turns out, Sterling, too, was accused of wrongdoing, and though he was acquitted, Becky’s father still considers him a crook, part of the reason for his estrangement from the family. Even more devastatingly, his beloved Karen left him, and it was only after following her around California fruitlessly for two years that he moved to Costa Rica to grapple with the shame that still lurks beneath the surface.

From the moment she arrives, Becky upsets Sterling’s sense of peace, both inner and outer. She wants to add rum to the smoothies he makes her, suggests they “smoke a bowl” together, and is so frightened of the iguanas scratching on the tin roof of Takeshi Kata’s versatile, skeletal set that she wakes him in the middle of the night. When he takes her to walk the labyrinth, she rattles on incessantly even though he repeatedly requests silence, and she just doesn’t get the point.

Petersen’s Sterling is nothing short of brilliant — and self-effacing, because he always lets Gray have the spotlight. Although he says in a program interview that he didn’t think he was right for the part, he couldn’t have been more wrong. His initial awkwardness about seeing his niece after so many years is beautifully conveyed through body language as much as words, an infinitely nuanced combination that continues throughout the evening. When he does lose his temper, it’s all the more powerful because of the control that preceded the outburst.

Kata’s scenic design and the runway staging make the audience part of the milieu, though the sightlines are less than ideal at times. Richard Woodbury’s sound design — lots of animal noises — does the most to conjure up the jungle. But, in truth, “Slowgirl” could be performed without any set at all, as long as it has Petersen, Gray, and Arney to direct them.