It’s a tale of two very different plays with Theatre Seven of Chicago’s production of the professional world premiere of "American Storm," currently running at the Greenhouse Theater Center through mid-December. Rarely in the theatergoing experience does a work offer so much first act promise, before ultimately succumbing to plot holes as large as the 20-pound thoroughbred equestrian hearts repeatedly referenced in the dialogue.
The setting is small town Ohio, 1962, where the topical dynamics of corporate advantage and greed bump up against traditional middle class values and a sense of fair play in the pursuit of the American Dream. A colorful ensemble cast of characters rotate through Weldon Downs, a local racetrack that may just be sitting on the Next Big Thing in racing.
American Storm, the surprisingly speedy horse with a mediocre pedigree has been lovingly raised by tomboyish trainer Jakey (the naturally gorgeous and expressive Lucy Carapetyan), and at the play’s open, appears poised to become a champion.
Jakey is more than just the town’s beloved horsewoman. She is also the guardian of Stuck (Johnny Meyer who impresses with the nuanced delivery of long strings of statistic-laden dialogue), the former lover of stable owner Robert Duffet (the believably conflicted Scott William Anderson) and the sworn enemy of Duffet’s wife Eudora (an excellently brittle Susie Griffith).
The blue collar Jakey is also the fortunate owner of American Storm, a steed won fair and square in what is known as a claim’s race. One of the more interesting facets of the production is its dexterity in discovering legitimate emotional tension and suspense within the nuances of a sport that audience members may never have considered prior to taking their seats.
Duffet is a man born with advantages yet intimately acquainted with the value of honest, hard work. This sets him apart from his mercenary society wife Eudora and would-be business partner De Ferenczi (a functionally one-dimensional Jim Poole), two people who experience no moral qualms about rigging the system in their favor.
With Duffet, Jakey, African-American government liaison Arthur Figgets (Andre Teamer) and Cuban jockey Miguel Valequez (a really marvelous Anthony DiNicola) caught in their crosshairs, De Ferenczi and Eudora embark on a cynical scheme of "patriotism" that upends lives and threatens the local passion for horse racing.
I have waxed favorably about the production’s various acting performances. There are no weak links. In addition to those already referenced, "American Storm" features strong work from Hilary Williams as Miguel’s loving wife Bonnie. Williams, fresh off a stint with LiveWire Chicago in "The Mistakes Madeline Made" shows her range in the role of a devoted spouse that could have been played with one note.
Donna McGough brings gruff affection and passion to her role as Margaret Granville, Bonnie’s mother and the estranged wife of Weldon Downs manager Harley Granville (Sean Sinitski). Adolescent performances from Meyer, and Destin Teamer as Stuck’s best pal and training apprentice Martin, are agile and complex.
The ultimate weakness of "American Storm" cannot be located in the accomplished work of the talented cast, nor can it be pinned to amazing scenic design from Joe Schermoly in conjunction with sound design from Jeff Kelley. Can you imagine a story of horse racing believably told without ever witnessing an actual horse? Neither could I. Kudos to Schermoly and Kelley.
After a rousing and vibrant first half where several intertwining story arcs are braided into a scintillating tapestry, the production is ultimately derailed by cavernous inconsistencies in the script from Carter W. Lewis. I will avoid specifics in the interest of spoiler protection but as one example, the convenient deus ex machina resolution of the Robert Duffet storyline is a wasted opportunity to delineate an alternative to the capitulation of the one percent. There are plenty of other threads that ask for more suspension of disbelief than an experienced audience should muster.
Solid overall direction from Theatre Seven of Chicago Managing Artistic Director Brian Golden is not enough to redeem the gaping narrative incongruity of "American Storm." This is regrettable because if asked to stand alone, the first act is one comprehensively fine piece of theater.
"American Storm" runs through Dec. 16 at the Greenhouse Theater Center Upstairs Studio, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago. For info or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Theatre Seven of Chicago website.