At The Gift Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Chicago – Every season a small Chicago theater comes up with the high-buzz play of the year. In 2010 the play is “Suicide, Incorporated” by Andrew Hinderaker at the tiny Gift Theatre on the north side.
As the play’s title states, Hinderaker’s play is about suicide, not a comfortable subject for an audience. But the play’s merits reside in what it isn’t. The drama isn’t maudlin, morbid, tasteless, manipulative, or preachy. Instead, it’s engrossing, and exceptionally well acted. The drama will stick under the viewer’s skin like a burr.
Hinderaker casts his spell in a single 80-minte act. The play opened to mostly reverential reviews in June. After a sold-out six week run, the play is back for a three-week encore. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in adult theater in the best sense of the word, created by a playwright with a wonderful talent for conveying intense, emotionally charged content with low-keyed realistic dialogue.
“Suicide, Incorporated” opens with a bizarre premise. An outwardly genial but slightly sinister young man named Scott is interviewing a young man named Jason for an opening as a writer-editor for his small company. The company helps would-be suicides prepare farewell notes to leave behind them. Jason recently quit Hallmark Cards because he claims he was tired of writing Happy Birthday every day. Jason wants to do more with his writing talent, and Suicide, Incorporated would provide him with an upgrade in his career.
Early on we learn that Jason is a volunteer at a suicide crisis center. Is he actually a mole trying to save death-driven clients who come to Scott for assistance?
Scott envisions his company as a growth enterprise. He claims that 80% of the thousands of suicides each year are men, and men are notorious for their reluctance in seeking help. Suicide, Incorporated would fill their need. Scott envisions company franchises throughout the country.
The grotesque Suicide, Incorporated business concept recedes into the background about halfway through the play as Jason’s personal drama takes center stage, along with a client named Norm who comes to the office for aid in preparing a suicide note addressed to his ex wife. Norm feels his personal draft of the note is small and he doesn’t want to leave a small message behind him.
Jason has his own issues. He bickers and banters with a young man named Tommy, who turns out to be Jason’s younger brother. The lad committed suicide and now appears inside Jason’s head (though in full view of the audience), weighing him down with guilt over his failure to respond to Tommy’s psychological tailspin before it was too late.
While Jason takes an anti-suicide position for others, he ponders his own suicide, unable to deal with Tommy’s death. The play implies that life can be so hopeless that self destruction may be a logical, even legitimate, way out for the depressed and the beleaguered. Consider Norm. He’s lost his wife and his job. He apparently has nothing to live for, either now or in the future. Yet Norm is a sensible man and not a hysteric. He just wants out of a painful and purposeless existence.
Scott scorns suicides as cowards who lack the guts to live. He’s a survivor though one of his parents was a suicide and his flunky assistant at the office jumped to his death after Scott berated him with a humiliating public dressing-down.
A synopsis of the action doesn’t convey the richness of Hinderaker’s script. Spectators who enter the theater with preconceived attitudes toward suicide will find themselves challenged.
The depth of the acting pool on the storefront theater scene has always been impressive. But not many theaters at any level in Chicagoland can offer a performance as sensitive and persuasive as Joshua Rollins’s presentation of the anguished Jason. Michael Patrick Thornton’s understated Norm is quiet, almost matter of fact, which enhances its fascination. We ache for the man’s misery and his brave acceptance of the ruin that is his life. No melodrama from either Rollins or Thornton, just truth.
The remainder of the ensemble supports the two leads well, especially Michael Salinas as the creepy Scott. Jay Worthington plays the doomed flunky, Mike Harvey is Tommy, and James Farruggio appears in a cameo as a police officer. Well done by all.
Jonathan Berry beautifully orchestrates the production so the 80 minutes pass without sounding a single false note. The designers do well within the confines of the minuscule Gift stage. Don Stratton’s scenic design effectively moves from location to location with the shift of a few props. Emily McConnell designed the costumes, Sarah Hughey the lighting, and Matthew Chapman the sound.
In 1983 a play opened on Broadway called “’night Mother” that grimly dealt with suicide. The play won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. “Suicide, Incorporated” is better.
“Suicide, Incorporated” runs through September 12 at the Gift Theatre, 4802 North Milwaukee Avenue. Performances are Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $30. Call 773 283 7071 or visit www.thegifttheatre.org.
The show gets a rating of four stars. August 2010
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