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Theater Fri Mar 14 2014
Photo by Liz Lauren.
A woman arrives alone at a roadside motel somewhere in Iowa. She pays the motel manager for a week with a wad of cash. "Really? No credit card?" he says. She has luggage and immediately orders in a large supply of snacks and wine coolers -- and pays the delivery guy with cash.
She's Clem, played by Elizabeth Birnkrant, and she isn't explaining why there are two child car seats in the back of her Volvo SUV. Step Up Productions' new world premiere of Darlin' by Chicago playwright Joshua Rollins begins with Clem as the mystery woman, who meets the other denizens of the no-name motel and learns that each deals with questions like, "How did I get here? How did this become my life?" Later we learn that Clem is fighting these same questions.
Kenny (Jake Carr) can deliver whatever Clem needs, including a joint or two. Smith (Todd Michael Kiech) manages the motel and fixes or doesn't fix what needs fixing. Dee (Elizabeth Antonucci) is the motel maid who arrives with her cart and cleaning supplies and tries to clean up Clem's clutter, snacking and drinking debris. Troy (Robert Hardaway) is staying at the motel while providing tech services for the dental conference that everyone thinks Clem is attending. But she isn't.
Director Ilesa Duncan choreographs this constant stream of visitors and interlopers to Clem's motel room, where the entire play takes place. Duncan keeps the action moving smoothly although the arc of the play really doesn't go anywhere. The two-act, two-hour-plus play is essentially a well-written character study. The script would benefit from some judicious editing to turn Darlin' into a crisp 90-minute one-act play. The motel room set design by Robert Groth and Jenniffer Thusing looks exactly like all those anonymous hotel rooms you've stayed in.
The cast is generally solid, but Birnkrant and Antonucci provide the strongest performances and their relationship is also the dominant one. Dee is a minimum wage worker whose menacing boyfriend Hank (John Wehrman) takes her money and abuses her. "Walmart is the best fucking option in this town," Dee laments, explaining that she is desperate to get hired there. Clem offers her cash for a way out, but Dee is not able to imagine changing her life.
Clem is the only character who takes action to change her life. "I left Jake and I don't think I can go back," she says. "... It's this darkness and I realized it wasn't just depression." We learn a little more about Clem when her husband Jake (Bradford Lund) arrives to try to get her to go home. "This may not be the perfect life for you," Jake says, "but it's the one you've got."
Joe Court's sound design includes cuts of atmospherically appropriate songs. And he has this fan's thanks for including most of the song "State Trooper" from Bruce Springsteen's 1982 acoustic album Nebraska. It's woven into act two of Darlin' as Clem's husband arrives after a long drive to ask her to come home. The song succeeds in conveying the hopelessness of everyone at the no-name motel.
"In the wee wee hours your mind gets hazy, radio relay towers lead me to my baby
Radio's jammed up with talk show stations
It's just talk, talk, talk, talk, till you lose your patience
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me
Hey, somebody out there, listen to my last prayer
Hiho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere"
Step Up Productions has a mission that sets it apart from most Chicago theater companies: It supports other types of nonprofits in Chicago that are committed to helping people get to a better place -- whether that means fighting homelessness, poverty, hunger or, in this case, domestic violence. Partial proceeds from this production of Darlin' will go to benefit the House of the Good Shepherd, which serves women and children survivors of domestic violence.
Darlin' will be staged by Step Up Productions at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., until April 13. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased online or by calling 773-935-6875. For more information, see stepupproductions.com.