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BWW Review: SMART PEOPLE at Writers Theatre

BWW Review: SMART PEOPLE at Writers Theatre

As the house lights dim in the intimate space at Writers Theatre, a pre-recorded message welcomes patrons to the theatre, reminds them to silence their cell phones, and invites them to "lean forward and engage." This is an apt prelude to the Chicagoland premiere of Lydia R. Diamond's SMART PEOPLE, a play which presents thought-provoking ideas and addresses timely issues through witty dialogue and entertaining characters.

Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the play centers around four young professionals of diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, exploring the ways in which their lives intersect during the period of 2007-2009. Neuroscientist Brian White (Erik Hellman) and psychologist Ginny Yang (Deanna Myers) both work at Harvard University, where Brian studies the human brain's response to race and Ginny studies anxiety and depression among Asian-American women. Valerie Johnston (Kayla Carter), a working actor with an MFA, cleans houses on the side to make ends meet. Surgical intern Jackson Moore (Julian Parker) struggles with difficult supervisors at Harvard Medical School while volunteering in his free time at a clinic for people without insurance.

Through the lens of these four characters' experiences and perspectives, the audience is swept at a dizzying pace into discussions about race, class, and sexuality. There is no weak link in this ensemble cast; all four actors give engaging performances as their characters explore challenging, often uncomfortable, ideas. The cast, under the direction of Hallie Gordon, also draws out the humor in the script, which is surprisingly abundant given the serious nature of its themes. A chronological gap between the final two scenes leaves unresolved questions about several character arcs. However, the ambiguity seems intentional, allowing the issues addressed in the play to remain as ongoing conversations rather than neatly packaged conclusions.

Kathy A. Perkins' lighting design and Richard Woodbury's sound design augment the viewer's sense of connection to the characters and their journeys. At various points in the play, stock photos of people rapidly flash across the digitally projected backdrop, mirroring the process of Brian's neurological lab studies. The effect allows the audience to identify with Brian's subjects and consider their own responses to the photos. In another striking scene, the house lights suddenly go up mid-scene as Brian presents his studies' controversial conclusions and addresses the audience as if they are his colleagues in the sciences. Without completely breaking the fourth wall, these decisions draw the viewer into the action, encouraging a deeper level of thought about the ideas being presented.

Delivering a triple threat of relevant writing, thoughtful direction, and a strong ensemble cast, SMART PEOPLE is well worth a trip to Writers Theatre's stylish new facility on Chicago's North Shore.

SMART PEOPLE runs through June 24 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL, 60022. Tickets available at 847-242-6000 or

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

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From This Author Emily McClanathan

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