BWW Review: Brookline-Inspired CHILL in World Premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Written by Eleanor Burgess, Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian; Scenic Designer, Christina Todesco; Costume Designer, Miranda Giurleo; Lighting Designer, Wen-Ling Liao; Sound Designer, Elisheba Ittoop; Lead Producer, Emily Ruddock; Production Stage Manager, Casey L. Hagwood; Stage Manager, Maegan Passafume
Performances through April 16 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
It is a universal story, a rite of passage, if you will: experiencing the joy and heartache of becoming a grownup. Playwright Eleanor Burgess burrows into her own backyard of Brookline, Massachusetts, to follow four high school friends from the eve of their graduation through a decade of change in Chill, presently receiving its world premiere at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell. Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian guides an all-female creative and design team, a first for MRT, honing in on the intimacy and urgency that defines the lives of adolescents on the cusp of stepping out into the world at large.
Burgess shows herself to be a solid dramatist, capturing both the zeitgeist of the years 2001 through 2011, as well as the language and nuances of behavior of a close knit quartet of two girls and two boys. In the first act, we are flies on the wall of a basement playroom where Jenn (Maria Jung), Alli (Monica Giordano), Ethan (Danny Bryck), and Stu (Kim Fischer) hang out, drink beer, play games, and riff on their plans (or non-plans) for their futures. Their conversations ricochet from one topic to another, generally eschewing substance, occasionally becoming awkward, until finally the boys leave for another party and the girls settle in for some female bonding. Jenn is the smart one and Alli is the social one, but both have their insecurities. Alli rolls her eyes and expresses her boredom, presciently saying, "I just want something to happen." As the act concludes and the lights fade, we hear the sound (designer Elisheba Ittoop) of news bulletins on 9-11, followed by a litany of reports along a timeline of watershed events, including President Barack Obama's historic election.
Ten years later, the foursome reunites in the same basement on Thanksgiving weekend. Jenn and Ethan have followed their predicted paths, but may not yet have traveled the distances they had in mind, while Alli continues to be a work in progress, looking ahead with patience and positivity. Stu seems truly disappointed in not living his dream, perhaps explaining his political divergence from the group. Nearing the end of their 20s, although they share a common history, they awaken to a realization that outside forces may weigh more heavily than the bond they forged a decade ago. It seems too soon for midlife crisis to have set in, but perhaps it comes early in a world that spins so rapidly out of control.
Sandberg-Zakian allows the action to flow naturally with bursts of energy and blocks of dead air, letting the audience experience the awkward silences and discomfort of the characters when conflict occurs. The actors are all believable as 17-year olds, as well as the older iterations of the friends. Thanks to youthful hairstyles, manner of speech, and adolescent fashions, they all play authentically under their actual ages. Fast forward ten years, and Miranda Giurleo costumes them as young adults, and they shift their body language and tones of voice to appear generally more mature and settled. Cristina Tedesco's set displays the vestiges of childhood with clutter from the past in the opening act, but the crack crew tidies it up and swaps out books, games, and electronics during the intermission to reflect the changing times. The set is effectively lit by designer Wen-Ling Liao.
For the uninitiated, or anyone older than a millennial, the term chill has numerous definitions:
1. to calm down
2. cool, tight, wicked, sick, sweet, nice, etc.
3. to hang out
4. to be easy going
5. a little bit cold
6. its ok
Burgess applies different definitions at different points in the play, but the first meaning seems most apt for the general states of mind that her characters convey. Of course, as Jenn says while ranting about hating the word, the last thing you want to hear when you're freaking out is someone telling you to chill. It may be good advice, but it is nearly impossible to follow it when facing an unknown or unstable future. Jenn, Ethan, Alli, and Stu find themselves staring out at a world that is totally different from what they expected. How come no one ever tells us how to be a grownup? Maybe they do, but we're just not paying attention. We're too busy being chill.