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Michael Shannon, co-stars win the triple crown for ‘Simpatico’



When: Through Aug. 25

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells

Tickets: $30-$40

Info: (312) 943-8722;

Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

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Updated: August 11, 2013 6:07AM

Note to Sam Shepard: It’s time to climb into your beloved vintage Buick and take a road trip to Chicago this summer.

Destination? A Red Orchid Theatre in Old Town, the grungy little storefront where a stellar cast demonstrates just how to generate spectacular fireworks by way of “Simpatico,” your sharply hilarious lament for a mythic America and the fallout of one quintessential con.

This is certainly not the first time a Chicago theater company has cracked open one of Shepard’s plays in ways others have failed to do. But the work of this spectacularly gifted group of veteran Chicago actors is among the most memorable efforts. And having seen the original New York production of “Simpatico” back in 1994, I can attest to the fact that the Red Orchid edition, under the galvanic direction of Dado, is running a theatrical horse race worthy of the legendary Secretariat, and wins by a mile.

The backdrop for Shepard’s play is the world of horseracing. But the story he tells, as is often the case, is a quasi-Bibilical tale of two men — blood brothers of a sort, linked forever by a crime committed 15 years earlier. The inequity and guilt connected to the outcome of that crime ­— as well as to the “theft” of one man’s wife by the other man — just will not be dispelled.

And yes, there is a great deal of plot here (one character even laments the loss of plot in contemporary stories), but it is character and objective that drive “Simpatico” from the start.

It all begins as Carter (Michael Shannon — yes, General Zod of “Man of Steel,” back at his home base, in exceptional form, and worth seeing for his meltdown with a blanket alone), is summoned back “home” to California by his former partner in a horse racing corruption scam, Vinnie (Guy Van Swearingen in a superbly taut, expertly tempered high-wire turn). Carter’s designer suit and attache case, and the horses-and-country club veneer fit for his current life in Lexington, Kentucky, is clearly an irritant to Vinnie — the guy who got the rough end of the deal in the scam and whose life is a mess. While Vinnie was villified, Carter went on to become a successful racetrack honcho, sending payments to keep his former partner quiet. But Vinnie has grown disquiet.

Meanwhile, Carter also has been “helping” the true victim of the scam, Simms (Doug Vickers, in a performance of immense skill and shrewd wit). A former California horseracing commissioner who Carter and Vinnie set up for a kinky sex escapade chronicled by incriminating photos, Simms got a name change and was “subdued” by a job working for Carter.

Of course crucial to all this chicanery is Vinnie’s ex-wife who went off and married Carter. A real piece of work by the name of Rose (Jennifer Engstrom in a jawdropping turn as a high-class slut), she is tended to by a prim young black assistant (Kristin E. Ellis).

Every bit as sly as Rose in her own “wide-eyed” way is another woman — Cecilia (Mierka Girten, always full of surprises, is a brilliantly comic mix of innocence and experience). A hippie well past her prime, her quirky guilelessness triggers hilariously different responses from all three men.

The classic Shepard themes are all in play here: The dissembling of intimates, the nostalgia for some disappearing American exceptionalism, the passion for self-reinvention, the onslaught of technology (here in the form of comically dated technology, including a mobile phone the size of a dictionary), the recognition that corruption is part of the fabric and that guilt will crawl into any Eden like that Old Testament snake. But then there’s that Red Orchid to make it all bloom.

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