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Review: World Premiere of Ike Holter's SENDER at A Red Orchid Theatre Paints A Smart, Entertaining Portrait of Emerging Adulthood

A Red Orchid Theatre's world premiere production of SENDER, from playwright Ike Holter (EXIT STRATEGY), thrives on the contrast between order and chaos. Or, more precisely in the millennial world of the play, the tension between wanting to remain in childhood and the need to face the realities of adulthood. The crux of SENDER focuses on a group of four friends struggling with this very issue, all of whom are in various stages of growing up. One of the friends disappeared a year ago and has since been presumed dead. The twist? At the beginning of the play, he shows up--and completely offsets the balance that has been established in his absence.

The play opens with Tess (Mary Williamson) on the porch of her Chicago apartment, silently drinking a beer. Out of the darkness, Lynx (Steve Haggard)--the long-gone friend--emerges. Mike Durst's lighting design in this early moment gives an eerie quality to the scene as we see Lynx approach, almost as if out of myth. And indeed, when Lynx informs Tess that he has spent the past year in the woods of Wisconsin, we see that he has quite literally come out of the forest. Early on, Lynx is clearly established as the chaotic force in SENDER.

Lynx's untethered nature is contrasted by Cassandra (McKenzie Chinn), who has been forced to pick up the pieces of the mess he left behind. Cass, as she is called, has become a comforting parental figure to Tess and a wife and provider for Lynx's best friend, Jordan (Steven Wilson). And though Cass clearly finds both Tess and Jordan immature, she also revels in the power she has over both of them--and she's not thrilled to see Lynx return. Cass says she "knows everything" and vows to stop that cat in his tracks, by attempting to bribe him to disappear once more. Thus, Holter expertly sets up the primary power struggle in SENDER, both as a larger metaphor but also very much embedded in the play's specific world. While Lynx has the ability to pull Tess and Jordan further back into his wild, carefree ways, Cass wants to encourage them to move on. SENDER thrives on this tension, and Holter sets up an intriguing dynamic among the characters that shifts throughout.

Steve Haggard and McKenzie Chinn in SENDER.
Photo by Michael Brosilow.

While the exploration of order vs. chaos in SENDER sometimes takes on a mythic quality, the play and characters feel grounded in reality. Holter's dialogue employs a specific and authentic jargon, which reinforces the characters' closeness. The scenes in SENDER are rife with expletives but also many clever, laugh-out-loud funny turns of phrase. At one point, Jordan demands that Tess return a mix CD Lynx made for him, to which she responds, "This is not Sam Goody." A later scene between Jordan and Lynx cleverly conveys the intimacy of that friendship, as the two seamlessly trade pop culture references-Wilson and Haggard's exchange here makes it easy for audiences to believe that this is a deep, long-lasting friendship.

Under the direction of Shade Murray, the actors have similarly strong work throughout the course of SENDER. As Lynx, Haggard carries himself with the attitude of a nonchalant man-child. He seems to sway across the stage, almost as if he's floating--a fitting choice as Lynx is reluctant to put down roots. As Tess, Williamson's performance runs the full gamut of emotions, and we feel both the pain and ecstasy of her reunion with Lynx--and the implications it may have for her drinking problem. In the role of Cass, Chinn maintains upright posture throughout the show and has a crisp, direct line delivery indicative of her character's need for control. Wilson's take on Jordan offers a realistic portrait of a man who feels utterly confused about the life in front of him.

Steve Haggard and Steven Wilson in SENDER.
Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Mike Durst's multi-level set makes excellent use of A Red Orchid's intimate performance space. The play is staged in Tess's apartment building, with an upstage space meant to indicate the roof of her building and a downstage space to represent her unit's porch, with an interior space in-between that functions as the kitchen. The brick wall at the back of the stage and the graffiti detailing underscore the play's urban setting. Alexia Rutherford's casual costumes convey that "emerging adulthood" stage of life in which the characters reside. There's no formal work-wear nor sense of fashion choice for Tess, Jordan, or Lynx, while Cass has a more put-together wardrobe aesthetic.

While Holter's play on the whole moves rapidly with a 95-minute run-time, some scenes last a few beats too long, particularly a drunken scene between Jordan, Lynx, and Tess that becomes very messy. There's also an early scene involving nudity that hovers on the line between gratuitous and indicative of Lynx's free spirit. And while the characters are finely drawn and interesting to watch, they're not necessarily likable. It can be frustrating to watch these characters who seem to have so many options in life--and who are clearly well-educated-- and yet seem so uninterested in pursuing any of them.

Then again, I suppose that's part of the point. Lynx's role makes this particularly clear--he holds power over Tess, Jordan, and to a certain extent, Cass--and yet he holds himself accountable to no one. Of the other three characters' stagnant, carefree lifestyle, Cass asks, "What happens when this stops being cute?" In SENDER, Holter toys with that tension between remaining in a permanent state of adolescence or finally choosing to grow up--and accept the challenges that come with that. Each of the characters faces that choice, and it is fascinating to see how they grapple with it.

SENDER runs through May 29 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells. Tickets are $30-$35 and can be purchased online at aredorchidtheatre.org, by phone at 312.943.8722, or in-person at the Box Office.

Photos by Michael Brosilow



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