Polarity Ensemble Theatre in association with Asuza Productions presents a new work by author David Alex, a recipient of three Grant Awards from the Illinois Arts Council in Recognition in Playwrighting. Being unfamiliar with the legacy of the company as well as the artist, I had few preconceived notions as I took my seat before the press performance of "Adrift," directed by Maggie Speer of Asuza. The only prejudice I carried with me is a tremendous respect for the Greenhouse Theater Center, the chosen venue for Polarity’s mounting of Alex’s work, as the Center sponsors some of the most eclectic, exciting undertakings on the Chicago theater scene.
"Adrift" is summarized in press packet materials as follows: "Fathers and sons grow and learn from each other as they confront and make decisions concerning definitions of truth, loyalty, honor and accountability. Do our life experiences determine their definitions or does our definition of them direct our life?" If this explication sounds rather general and impenetrable, consider that a foreshadowing of what you can expect from the production.
Although there are elements to admire, including standout performances from sub-plot stars Gary Murphy (Judd Benz) and Eric Ryan Swanson (Tom Benz), the end result is melodrama that sits uncomfortably on the precipice of overkill.
Let’s begin with the main plot device. I believe a production has a problem when the audience is more involved with the secondary storyline than the primary. Such is the case in "Adrift." At the forefront is the complicated, unnecessarily at some points, evolution of the father/son relationship between Isaac Abbas, played by Colin Henry Fewell, and his father, haunted Navy man, Jack Abbas, inhabited by James Eldrenkamp.
Isaac is an overachieving, nerdy schoolteacher type, modeled into a beacon of "accountability" by his buttoned up military father. Isaac is such a throwback in look and manner as a matter of fact that, bewilderingly, I believed the play was set in a previous decade, until modern references to the Internet clarified matters.
It seems that Isaac remains in some state of post-traumatic stress disorder himself, having recently let go of his dad, who was haunted by a judgment call made in a time of war that cost a former soldier and friend his life. If I’m not doing a great job of summarizing this central piece of the action, it’s because it’s all fairly murky as directed by Speer and acted by Fewell and Eldrenkamp.
At one point, Fewell is called upon to play Isaac as a young child, to convey the sense of a long-suffering struggle for both men with Jack’s emotional problems. The result of this piece of the performance is unbelievable and unintentionally comedic. Complicating matters: Eldrenkamp’s gravelly voice which is at times unintelligible in its rasp.
The play’s ultimate flaw however, and thus that of the production, is in the question that Isaac poses to the audience whilst breaking the third wall toward the end of the show: "How can I forgive myself for the choice I made?" Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that the decision the son makes in regard to his father appears to be rather a no-brainer given the circumstances. It simply doesn’t work to attempt to create dramatic tension where realistically, very little would exist beyond the basic grief associated with the loss of a parent.
I have already referred to a secondary storyline involving Judd Benz, the principal at Isaac’s school, and his rebellious son Tom, a pupil in Isaac’s math class. I have also mentioned that this subplot is the more engaging narrative, and it is. Judd is a devout Christian man struggling to come to terms with the nontraditional ideas of his teenage boy, an independent youth who nevertheless still seeks common ground with his father -- and finds it.
Murphy as the elder Judd and Swanson as Tom both log solid performances as the emotionally-charged, idealistic, yet loving parent and child. The tension and bond between the two men feels unforced and genuine, the antithesis of the manufactured existentialism of the primary relationship between Jack and Isaac.
Add to this unsatisfying stew a set design by Dennis Mae that looked like a high school summer stock project, cheap and full of flaws, and heavy-handed, overabundant script references to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and this critic was ready to throw in the towel. Although the play’s running time was a brief 181 minutes with no intermission, I found myself checking my watch several times.
"Adrift" means well and has some good material to work with, particularly in the relationship between Judd and Tom, but if the play is to be produced again, I would suggest some rework of the main plot line and more attention to the set. That said, and as I already mentioned high school summer stock, this could be satisfying for younger members of the theatergoing community with a less developed palate. And with no adult language, violence or nudity, parents would have little to fear.
"Adrift" runs through August 26 at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln in Chicago. For info or tickets call 773-404-7336 or visit the Greenhouse Theater website.