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Steppenwolf’s ‘Slowgirl’ a tour de force for Petersen



» Through Aug. 25

» Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

» $20-$78

» (312) 335-1650;

» 90 minutes with no intermission

Updated: August 30, 2013 6:27AM

Guilt is a subversive emotion. It may lack the red-hot flamboyance of rage, or the all-devouring quality of envy. But the more you might try to run from it, hide from it or bury it, the more it tends to lurk in the shadows until you confess, assume responsibility, and come to terms with the consequences of your actions. Even then, guilt has a way of not quite letting go.

Greg Pierce’s two-character play, “Slowgirl,” now receiving an intense production in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, is an anatomy of guilt. Under the sensitive direction of Randall Arney, two marvelous actors — William Petersen and Rae Gray — deliver finely tuned, often surprising performances.

The circumstances of the play, like its setting, are extreme. Becky (Gray) is a smart, uninhibited, quietly terrified 17-year-old from a well-to-do family in the Boston suburbs. She is in serious trouble. Before she is to face the music for her behavior, and its dramatically unintended consequences, she has been sent to a remote little town in Costa Rica to spend a few days with her uncle, Sterling (Petersen), a middle-aged man, long estranged from her family because of a financial scandal.

Sterling has been living a very quiet, inward-looking, isolated existence, and has found a certain degree of peace. He is no angel, but he is far from the madding crowd; a broken marriage and a bad reputation have left indelible scars. His exile is a relief and a self-inflicted punishment.

Meanwhile, compulsively talkative and brashly frank in that of-the-moment, “say anything” way that is more of a protective wall than might immediately be apparent, Becky could well be facing manslaughter charges and prison time. She was at an alcohol-fueled house party that went out of control. She also was caught on video as the “slow girl” of the play’s title — one of her school’s lonely outcasts who unknowingly gulped down far too many Jell-O shots. Euphoric about just being part of the party, she leapt from a window.

Initially, Sterling is awkward and unsure about how to deal with Becky, though clearly he understands her pain. Becky, quietly terrified, and torn between denial and stark reality, is all adolescent swagger at first, though she gradually realizes that her indulgent, careless behavior has altered several lives, including her own, forever.

In just a handful of scenes that unspool in just 90 minutes on designer Takeshi Kata’s elegantly minimalist set (with Richard Woodbury’s sound conjuring parrots and iguanas), these two people from different generations make a crucial connection. Pierce captures his characters’ voices ideally, and the actors follow suit.

Petersen suggests Sterling’s interior struggles with a wonderful sense of hard-won calm and understatement. The girlishly sexy Gray, sublimely watchable, is a young actress of remarkable talent and smarts. And the intriguing chemistry between these two masters of the intimate stage is delicious to observe.

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