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The road to ‘Plainsong’ a marvelous journey

Maggie Jones (Katie Worthington) lends support fellow teacher Tom Guthrie (Joseph Stearns) “Plainsong” Signal Ensemble Theatre. | PHOTO BY JOHNNY

Maggie Jones (Katie Worthington) lends support to fellow teacher Tom Guthrie (Joseph Stearns) in “Plainsong” at Signal Ensemble Theatre. | PHOTO BY JOHNNY KNIGHT

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Highly recommended

When: Through March 8

Where: Signal Ensemble Theatre,
1802 W. Berenice

Tickets : $20

Info: (773) 698-7389;

Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
with one intermission

Updated: February 3, 2014 7:01PM

Think of “Plainsong,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s altogether remarkable production, as a beautifully nuanced contemporary version of “Our Town.”

True, Thornton Wilder’s classic pulled back the curtains on small town life in early 20th century New England, while “Plainsong” — artfully adapted by Eric Schmiedl from the bestselling 1999 novel by Kent Haruf — opens windows on small-town life on the wide open plains of eastern Colorado in the final years of that century. But for all the differences in geography and social mores, there is something about both works that is undeniably rooted in the American grain, with both comprised of a certain quotidian poetry and mystical/moral beauty.

The town in “Plainsong” is called Holt, and its inhabitants are trying, often with great difficulty, to reconcile their fractious modern relationships and behavior with more old-school values.

At the center of the story is a broken family. Tom Guthrie (Joseph Stearns, just right as a modern everyman), is a high school teacher with high professional standards. His wife, Ella (the superb Erin Myers), is in the throes of a profound depression, leaving him to care for their two adorable, sensitive sons, Ike (Cale Manning, with a mane of red hair and the legs of a colt) and Bobbie (Jack Edwards, bespectacled and enchanting).

Tom is having classroom problems with the local thug, Russell Beckman (Rudy Galvan), and his angry, low-life parents. He also is trying to come to terms with his broken marriage, while being tended to by a fellow teacher, Maggie Jones (the immensely likable Katie Worthington), an attractive, upbeat, warmhearted woman who is caring for her dad, who is suffering from dementia.

Maggie also becomes the lifeline for one of her students, Victoria Roubideaux (Elizabeth Stenholt, a thinking beauty). A smart, appealing girl who has become pregnant, Victoria has been thrown out of her house by her unforgiving mother (Barbara Roeder Harris, who doubles as old Mrs. Stearns, the woman who embraces her newspaper delivery boys, Ike and Bobbie, like a grandmother, and in the process fends off her own loneliness). And in one of the great comic turns in the story, Maggie arranges for Victoria to spend her pregnancy in the home of two elderly bachelors, Harold McPheron (Vincent Lonergan) and his brother, Raymond (Jon Steinhagen), who run a cattle farm. This turns out to be a match made in theatrical heaven, with Lonergan and Steinhagen somewhere between Beckett characters and senior oaters.

All this might sound like more than enough to command your attention and grab your heart. But under the wonderfully natural, unaffected direction of Bries Vannon, the cast of 18 (several of whom play multiple roles) supplies what feels like a whole town of restless souls, each caught up in personal crises.

Buck Blue’s marvelous surround set of brick and hemp walls is eloquent heartland minimalism. It’s ideal for one of those grand-scale yet intimate undertakings that verge on the miraculous but are the essence of Chicago theater. This is a show that captures the moans of the human heart, as well as those of the cattle being rounded up and led to the slaughter.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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