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Dysfunctional family lives play out at Steppenwolf’s First Look

(left right) Frankl(GavLawrence) Jesse (Tim Frank) William (Julian Parker) 'The Gospel Franklin' by AarCarter directed by Robert O’Harpresented as part

(left to right) Franklin (Gavin Lawrence), Jesse (Tim Frank) and William (Julian Parker) in "The Gospel of Franklin" by Aaron Carter, directed by Robert O’Hara, presented as part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s First Look Repertory of New Work 2013. Performance through August 25, 2013.

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FIRST LOOK REPERTORY
OF NEW WORK

When: Through Aug. 25

Where: Steppenwolf Garage Theatre,
1624 N. Halsted

Tickets: $20 ($45 for 3-play pass)

Info: (312) 335-1650; steppenwolf.org

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Updated: September 14, 2013 6:08AM



Intense dramas about intensely dysfunctional families: If there is one generalization to be made about the three plays that comprise Steppenwolf Theatre’s eighth annual First Look Repertory of New Work, that might be it. Of course every dysfunctional family dwells inside its own chaotic Pandora’s box. And so it is with the explosive nuclear units on display in the expertly realized “developmental productions” now on view at the Steppenwolf Garage.

It was just last year at The Gift Theatre that I caught the 10-minute seedling from which Aaron Carter’s 90-minute “The Gospel of Franklin” has grown, and I could not possibly have imagined it would blossom into the riveting, deeply disturbing, complexly structured play it has become. At the center of Carter’s story is Franklin (an ideally volatile Gavin Lawrence), an African American factory worker in Ohio, whose fervent offerings of Biblical salvation to his troubled younger colleagues is something quite different than what it appears to be. But it is his grown son, William (a perfectly measured Julian Parker), who unspools the story in slyly artful, often surprising ways — gradually revealing secrets (not to be divulged here) of both his father’s life, and his own. Directed by Robert O’Hara, the cast also includes Tim Frank, Keith D. Gallagher and Rob Fenton. (Highly recommended.)

Surprises (and secrets) also are at the heart of “Annie Bosh is Missing,” Janine Nabers’ character-rich, multifaceted tale of race and addiction in post-Katrina Houston, Texas. Though Nabers suggests the city’s nerves were on edge as a result of the arrival of tens of thousands of evacuees from New Orleans and beyond, the more her story unfolds, the more you sense the problems were anything but new.

Annie (Caroline Neff, in just the latest of her characteristically brave performances), is a 22-year-old just out of rehab and back living in her well-to-do home with her over-protective mother (the excellent Jennifer Avery), and her fraternal twin (David Seeber), who saved her life. Though struggling to stay clean, much in Annie’s life is unresolved, including the truth about her long absent father (again, no spoiler provided here). Annie has an encounter with the girl who first introduced her to drugs (Brittany Burch is sensational); with her damaged but insightful young boss at a bowling alley (searing work by Ian Paul Custer), and with a 17-year-old black girl (the engaging Krenee A. Tolson), who defies stereotypes, as does her attorney dad (the elegant Phillip Edward Van Lear). Some of the 100-minute play’s twists and turns stretch belief a bit too far, but the actors, under Shade Murray’s vivid direction, keep you emotionally pinned to every moment. (Highly recommended.)

Edith Freni’s 90-minute “Buena Vista,” directed by Tim Hopper, is in the classic early Steppenwolf mold of dysfunctional families, beginning with its set — a remote Colorado cabin stuffed with the detritus of an upended, emotionally warped life. That life belongs to the long-divorced Freddy (Karen Vaccaro, a veteran Chicago actress not seen here for quite some time), who is now homeless and has taken refuge in her ex-husband’s vacant cabin. Unexpected arrivals include her once-promising but self-destructive, emotionally twisted, marine researcher son (Luigi Sottile); his on again-off again girlfriend (Leah Karpel); and Freddy’s ex-husband (Rich Komenich). It makes for a very toxic mix in this play that includes one crazily sick-funny sex scene and one murder that comes out of nowhere. (Recommended.)

A final note: The designers for all three plays — William Boles (sets) and Heather Gilbert (lighting) — deserve special applause.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic



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