Where: Victory Gardens Theater (upstairs),
2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Dec. 30
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The world premiere of Ike Holter’s “Rightlynd” at Victory Gardens Theater has substance and style, but these two virtues sometimes are at odds, and the storytelling occasionally doesn’t make total sense.
Chronologically the first in Holter’s seven-play saga set in Chicago’s imaginary 51st ward (the city actually has 50 wards), the 95-minute, one-act performance tackles a timely and by-now-familiar subject. A progressive, but politically naïve young woman determined to improve her community rather than let it fall to a corporate developer and gentrification runs for alderman and wins, but her efforts at reform are undone, and she ends up being co-opted by the system she hated.
The neophyte in this case is Nina Esposito (Monica Orozco), who was born and grew up in Rightlynd and whose mother once owned a corner bodega, one of the many empty storefronts in the blighted community. As the ensemble lyrically tells us in an opening that’s a blend of poetry and profanity, the L doesn’t stop in the neighborhood anymore, a school has closed, buildings are crumbling, and there’s more than a fair share of crime. But these locals have no truck with “brunch,” corruption, or developers forcing out the remaining small businesses.
Fired up by indignation and encouraged by Platt (Anish Jethmalani), a reporter for the “Daily News,” another dying institution, Nina sets about the improbable task of getting herself on the ballot to run against the entrenched old guard. She somehow collects enough signatures on her petition, and with the help of Pac (Eddie Martinez), an ex-con working at the neighborhood’s remaining car dealership who restarts her stalled motorcycle, she manages to make it to City Hall just before the deadline.
If that weren’t unlikely enough, here’s where the plotting starts to get inexplicably messy. To win votes and support, Nina turns to street corner drug dealer Amena (LaKecia Harris), a move that isn’t clearly explained and that ultimately backfires in a big way. She also manages to temporarily silence developer Applewood (Jerome Beck), the evil force of gentrification, simply by tape-recording a diatribe in which he vows to defeat her, leaving us wondering why he doesn’t just grab the tape recorder instead.
The biggest letdown, though, is what causes Nina to crumble. Paralleling her rise to prominence is her developing love affair with Pac, which gets a lot of stage time including a scene of their first date and a long dance sequence reminiscent of “La La Land.” We learn a lot about him, including that he was imprisoned for a very petty crime and then forgotten for years. He’s a good person, and Nina makes him her right-hand man, but the fact that she falls completely apart when she loses him comes across as male chauvinism in this context, however unintended.
The script also is very sketchy on what Nina intends to do as alderman. She promises Robinson (Robert Cornelius) she won’t let his auto business close, and she wants to keep the high school she attended open, too, but aside from banishing Applewood, she doesn’t seem to have a plan. If Holter wants us to believe she’s capable of doing the job rather than just being a firebrand, he needs to make a better case.
The play could use trimming in some places as well as expansion in others. The language—especially the very liberal use of the “f” word—may offend some, though it didn’t bother me. However, it did remind me of a friend who used to drop lots of “f” bombs and one day simply stopped. When I asked why, he said they were just an excuse for his failure to articulate exactly what he wanted to say, so he’d decided to do that instead.
Under Lisa Portes able direction, the cast does a fine job with a difficult work that requires lots of mood shifts. Orozco’s feisty, down-to-earth Nina is easy to root for, and her lovely relationship with Martinez’s Pac is the emotional heart of the evening. Jethmalani’s grounded Platt also deserves praise, as do Beck’s scary Applewood, Harris’ sullen Amena, Cornelius’ sometimes funny Robinson, and Sasha Smith as Nina’s secretary Manda. These five play multiple roles so well, you may think there are more actors.
Collette Pollard’s scenic design, augmented by Jared Gooding’s lighting and Mikhail Firsel’s sound, simply suggests a rundown Chicago neighborhood with details like an iron gate and rolling metal window covering. Samantha C. Jones’ costume design features street clothes but peaks with Pac’s hilarious first-date suit. The original songs are by the playwright (lyrics) and Charlie Coffen (music), who also composed the score.
Though I missed the plays in Holter’s saga that already have been produced – “Exit Strategy” and “The Wolf at the End of the Block” among them – “Rightlynd,” though in need of additional work, has whet my appetite for more.