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Steppenwolf’s ‘Carson McCullers’ speaks volumes to highschoolers

‘fml: How
McCullers Saved My life’


◆ Through March 18

◆ Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

◆ Tickets, $20

◆ (312) 335-1650;

Updated: April 10, 2012 11:22AM

Texting has given us more acronyms than we can possibly remember. But the title of Sarah Gubbins’ ingeniously layered new play, “fml: How Carson McCullers Saved My Life,” is a purposeful contradiction that should make instant sense to the lion’s share of the audience for which it was designed — high school students attending the Steppenwolf for Young Adults series. (For the uninitiated, the letters “fml” can be translated as “a common four-letter obscenity starting with “f” followed by “my life.”)

Earlier this season this same series presented a mostly unmemorable stage adaptation of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” Carson McCullers’ classic novel of loneliness, alienation and the power of love and art, all set in a Depression-era town in the deep South. Gubbins now gives us present-day suburban LaGrange, Ill., where a working-class high school honors student, Jo (an altogether remarkable, wonderfully natural and understated performance by the lanky Fiona Robert), is just trying to make it through each day at her Catholic high school.

A gifted writer-artist and basketball player, Jo also is a lesbian who senses her status as an outcast at every turn, despite the presence in her life of Mickey (the lively Ian Daniel McLaren), a gay male classmate; Reed (Bradley Grant Smith in a spot-on comic turn), her music-obsessed slacker of an older brother; and the pretty, popular Emma (Zoe Levin, spot-on in all her good girl/bad girl, smart versus mindless modes), who might or might not have a suppressed crush on Jo. (She is dating a gay-hating boor we never see.)

As for Jo’s crush — or idol — she comes in the form of a newly hired advanced placement English teacher, Ms. Delaney (the elegant, charismatic Lily Mojekwu), who introduces the class to McCullers’ book — a life-changer for Jo.

The McCullers connection inspires Jo to work on her own quasi-autobiographical graphic novel, which is vividly brought to life on multiple screens through the ingenious collaboration among projection designer Mike Tutaj, comics artist Lydia Conklin, set designer Chelsea Warren and lighting designer Lee Keenan. And while a brutal attack on Jo almost derails her, as does the fate of Ms. Delaney, she ultimately prevails and even finishes her own book.

Gubbins, sparing in her use of the McCullers text, has captured the high school lingo and attitudes ideally, often to fine comic effect, with the element of adolescent sexual confusion, as well as certainty, deftly suggested here. And Joanie Schultz, who has emerged as one of the city’s strongest and most stylistically adaptable directors (her recent work ranges from “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” at Next Theatre to “The Ring Cycle” for The Building Stage), gets the tone exactly right, from first note to last.

NOTE: Public performances of the show run Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays (except March 11) at 3 p.m.

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