BWW Reviews: A Red Orchid's SOLSTICE Hits a Little Too Close to Home
For those of us who have never seen war-torn parts of the world first hand, it can be a difficult thing to imagine. We can hear about it on the news, but it can still prove to be a hard concept to grasp when it is just words coming out of our flat-screen TVs, as we sit on our couches in pajamas, pizza in hand.
Personally, any time I hear about civil conflicts happening in parts of the world, my world-history-trained brain immediately evokes images of wars past. I can know full-well that these atrocities are happening right now, in 2014, but my brain refuses to create images of these places that hold any indicators that these horrors are happening in our modern age.
It's really only when I am faced with actual photographs of Syrian teens in jeans, Nikes, and a t-shirt standing next to the rubbles of a building or children in conflict-riddled parts of Africa wearing a Bulls jersey that it really hits me: That realization that civil conflict is real, prevalent, and happening now, no matter how far away it may feel from the comfort of our Midwestern homes.
It's this reality check, this necessary awareness, that the audience gets repeatedly jolted with throughout A Red Orchid Theatre's production of "Solstice" by Zinnie Harris (the same playwright of "The Wheel," which played at Steppenwolf this past fall). It finds you in the moments when two teenagers are awkwardly making out and not two minutes later, we are seeing their bodily scars inflicted from the neighboring terrorists. Or when you realize you could easily pick up the mother of the central family in the show and plop her, as she is, into a primetime sitcom, and she would fit in just as well as she does in this decrepit, terror-ridden town (or even, perhaps, better).
We are never given any geographic details of this made-up town that is in a made-up conflict with its made-up neighboring town, but nothing about the play feels made-up at all. In fact, much in thanks to Karen Kessler's excellent direction, it's the sense that every moment feels so real that allows "Solstice" to make its impact. When the characters are sweltering in the hot sun, you feel it. When the characters feel threatened, you feel threatened, too. It's the feeling that these people are just like us. Driving home that point, again, that, not only could this happen to you, but that it IS happening to people just like us around the world.
But, perhaps what makes these characters so easy to connect with is the humanizing realization that, even in the middle of towns on the verge of a full-blown civil war, these are still people dealing with such universal daily struggles as not communicating well with your partner or struggling to pass your exams.
Working on a set (designed by Joey Wade and Aaron O'Neill) that, quite brilliantly, makes use of A Red Orchid's narrow space (and, with help from lighting designer, Mike Durst, is able to make even 3 feet of stage evoke an entire landscape in the audience's mind), the cast of eight delivers eight solid, extremely natural (even in moments of heightened language) performances.
Larry Grimm and A Red Orchid's Artistic Director, Kirsten Fitzgerald, are the parents of a teenage boy, Adie, who increasingly becomes involved in the terror wars between the towns. Both actors give such genuine and complex performances, you stick by them through the end, whether you agree with their individual choices or not. Sarah Price, as Sita (who is reminiscent of a younger Anne Hathaway), the parentless girlfriend of Adie who, perhaps, has a better understanding of the conflicts happening between the towns more than any other character, gives such an open performance that you begin to take on her plight as your own. Danny Luwe, as Sita's younger brother, also deserves a mention for his outstanding transformation from a nothing-can-touch-me youth to a raw, needy boy desperate for some human kindness.
It does take a little time to get into the world of play with the first scene feeling a bit stunted (although whether this is due to the writing, the production, or it simply taking the audience a minute to tune into the mode of the show is hard to say). And, the song that begins playing in the last seconds of the play feel slightly jarring and out of place for the feeling that was so deftly just set by the actors. Howevever, in such a solid production, it's hard to find any faults that truly feel like a detraction from the play's effect.
"Solstice," especially when interpreted with as much depth and heart as A Red Orchid's current production, is excellent fodder for play-analysts' theses and leaves its audience with just as much material for post-play discussion. Whether it be the feeling that a state of affairs like this is not so far off for our current American society, whether it be a sense of the difference ways in which adults and modern-day youth choose to face society's issues, or whether it be a reminder that situations just like this one are happening every day, "Solstice" holds too much important commentary on today's world (as well as providing some gripping entertainment) to pass up.
"Solstice" is currently running through February 23, 2014 at A Red Orchid Theatre (1531 N. Wells in Chicago). Tickets can be online at www.aredorchidtheatre.org or by calling the box office at (312) 943-8722. Tickets are $25 - $30.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow