Where: Griffin Theatre Company at The Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through Aug. 25
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Harvest,” which is enjoying a well-acted Chicago premiere by Griffin Theatre Company, begins with five twentysomethings in a grubby church basement. They are standing or kneeling, sometimes moving around the room, praying individually, their fervor increasing until they are doing what’s known as “speaking in tongues.”
The one hour and forty-five minute drama, set in the small town of Idaho Falls, Idaho, ends the much the same way, only this time the world may have changed for at least one of them. These tableaux also are emblematic of their quest for meaning and their basic failure to communicate with each other.
The characters are young Evangelicals in the final days of preparation for a mission to an unnamed Arabic-speaking country in the Middle East. We get to know them gradually, as Hunter doles out their back stories, sometimes withholding information that, once it is revealed, clearly is crucial. He’s never condescending and always compassionate towards his creations, though we can clearly see their shortcomings.
Most of them are going for four months to convert Muslims to Christianity by “witnessing,” and it’s hard to know whether the vagueness about the destination is indicative of their cluelessness and innate sense of superiority or the playwright’s reluctance to be too specific lest his play become dated. Certainly, as Ada (Kiayla Ryann), the relentlessly upbeat organizer who has been “over there” before, leads them through role-playing exercises, it’s clear they have no idea what they’re getting into.
A young married couple, Marcus (Taylor Del Vecchio) and Denise (Kathryn Acosta), are gung-ho, though when Marcus finds out his wife is pregnant, he arranges without her knowledge or consent for them to spend their time overseas in an office. This is just one example of him exercising control over her, from the moment he tells her she’s speaking in tongues “wrong,” and the two actors do a compelling job of conveying the nuances of this toxic relationship.
Also signed up for four months is Tom (Collin Quinn Rice) a very nervous young man who has never been out of the town, has issues with his devout father, and is worried about his best friend with whom he shares a love of classical music.. That friend is Josh (Raphael Diaz), who unlike the others, is planning to relocate indefinitely and will be in a different village, something that deeply disturbs Tom.
Josh’s crisis of faith is at the center of the story, and Diaz’s layered performance makes it palpable. Traumatized by the recent death of his alcoholic father and his miserable life with the man since the loss of his mother, he’s desperately seeking a sense of purpose and a sign from God that he’s doing the right thing. But Tom isn’t the only one who doesn’t want him to go: Josh’s sister, Michaela (Paloma Nozicka), who left the family years ago and didn’t even make it back for dad’s funeral, returns from Oregon intent on preventing her brother from throwing his life away, as she sees it.
Not surprisingly, accusations and recriminations fly between the siblings, with Josh accusing Michaela of desertion and neglect, and Michaela using her need to get out, the meth habit she’s kicked, and a bad boyfriend as excuses. When she suggests that she and Josh could live together on the family farm he inherited, he suspects that she just wants a place to stay and a piece of his inheritance, though a brief vision of how the farm could be brought back to life shakes his resolve.
Adding another dimension to the arguments is the late arrival of Chuck (Patrick Blashill), who fills Josh—and us—in on his father’s history with the church and how he became an alcoholic. Whether his tale, a long monologue, is true or not is unclear, because he’s the pastor of the church and has an ax to grind. His presence also helps explain, late in the game, Tom’s behavior.
Under Jonathan Berry’s canny direction, the ending of “The Harvest” is ambiguous, or at least lighting designer Heather Gilbert’s final cue makes it seem so. Sotirios Livaditis’ set design is so convincing it feels dank, while Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes suit the characters well, and Sarah Ramos’ sound design peaks with a thunderstorm, While I found the play manipulative in parts, it’s also thought-provoking.