“To Catch a Fish”

Ike (Jay Worthington, right) confronts Terry (Geno Walker) in TO CATCH A FISH.
Photo by Lara Goetsch

RECOMMENDED

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through July 1
Tickets: $40-$54
Phone: 773-281-8463 x 6

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Brett Neveu’s “To Catch a Fish” is enjoying a very well-acted world preimere at TimeLine Theatre Company, but the play itself just doesn’t hold water. This is too bad because it’s the first work to emerge from TimeLine’s Playwrights Collective, after considerable development and workshopping, and the logical flaws suggest insufficient attention to the details of the script. The relevance to TimeLine’s mission of exploring important Americans issues makes the shortcomings more frustrating.

Inspired by investigative journalists’ John Diedrich and Racquel Rutledge’s series in the “Milwaukee Journal Sentinel” exposing a 2012 botched ATF (U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) sting called “Operation Fearless” in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, the play focuses on an African American victim of that debacle. He’s based on Chauncey Wright, the 28-year-old man who suffered a brain injury as an infant and was enlisted by the ATF agents to hand out fliers for the pop-up store they set up presumably to sell clothes and other goods but really to buy drugs and guns at inflated prices, ostensibly to get them off the street. Wright was arrested for selling the agents–who claimed they didn’t know about his disability–cocaine, ecstasy, and eight guns. (A prior felony charge for selling $10 bags of cocaine meant it was illegal for him to possess a gun.) He was indicted on seven drug and gun counts and sentenced to six months of house arrest and four years of probation.

Neveu changes Wright’s name to Terry Kilbourn (Geno Walker in a beautifully layered performance) and fleshes out his story with portraits of his family, girlfriend, and even the two white ATF agents and black Milwaukee cop he thinks are his friends. The most glaring gaffe in the script is that there doesn’t seem to be any reason why he’s arrested, which happens quietly, almost anticlimactically, at the end of the evening. Although undercover agents Dex (Stephen Walker; Josh Odor starting June 19) and Ike (a scary Jay Worthington) recruit him to get people to bring in guns, we never see him selling any, nor does he deal any drugs, which are pretty much removed from the equation except for a reference to the past. Unless I missed something, given the case as presented, I don’t know what the charges would be. “G” (AnJi White), the black police officer who arrests Terry, comes across as sympathic to him—and more concerned about how the ATF agents, who have run off somewhere, double-crossed her, but the specifics of that aren’t clear.

There is a confusing bit about a high-powered ATF gun, though, which Dex for some reason asks “G” to put in the ATF car. He later seems to be going to use it to entrap Terry’s cousin Dontre (Al’Jaleel McGhee), who brings in a perfectly legal WW II gun to sell, but it is stolen instead. (The real theft put the journalists on the trail of the story.)

When Terry’s not interacting with Ike, Dex, and “G”–in scenes that are fraught with tension because initially we don’t know who they are, and Ron OJ Parson directs them to be menacing beneath the surface affability—he’s usually riding his bike around town, fishing at his beloved river (hence the play’s title, though he’s also a fish who gets caught), or visiting his on again-off again girlfriend, Rochelle (Tiffany Addison), whose tough, sometimes carping exterior barely hides a loving heart. The other woman in his life is his grandmother Brenda (Linda Bright Clay), who raised both him and Dontre after their parents died. She treats them very differently, partly reflecting her deep feelings of guilt, and this contributes to an emotional crisis on Dontre’s part that fuels family tensions.

In some ways, Neveu casts his net too wide, so it’s hard to tell what he wants us to take away from the play. On the other hand, the immersive staging—with a set by Regina Garcia, lighting by Mike Durst, costumes by Christine Pascual, props by Vivian Knouse, and sound by David Kelepha Samba—ropes us in, and Walker’s million-watt smile and guileless manner make us care about Terry, even when he loses his temper and does something mean. If nothing else, “To Catch a Fish” is worth seeing for his performance.