Windy City Playhouse, located at 3014 W. Irving Park Rd., is Chicago’s newest Equity theater. A grand-scale storefront, with an elaborate lobby bar, it has signaled its adventurous spirit by means of its intriguing choice of an inaugural production. And clearly it also has been able to attract topnotch talent.
Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “End Days” is a post-Sept. 11, 2001 play that trades in many of the subjects people prefer to dance around, from religion, bullying and depression, to doomsday prognostications and death. The wonder of it all is that it is as laugh-out-loud funny as it is smart and full of heart. And while it is painfully aware of our ever-looming mortality on this Earth, the play also is fully preoccupied with food and first love, as well as with Jesus, Elvis and that pop star astrophysicist with ALS by the name of Stephen Hawking.
When: Through April 26
Where: Windy City Playhouse,
3014 W. Irving Park Rd.
Tickets: $20 – $45
Info: (312) 374-3196;
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
A crucial key to “End Days” can be found (literally) hanging from the rafters of the double-story Windy City space. Resembling an exploded pinata — with everything from a file cabinet to electronic equipment, bicycles, umbrellas and suitcases suspended over the runway-style stage — it suggests all the detritus of civilization blown out of the collapsing World Trade Towers.
Laufer’s story unspools in a generic house located well outside the city — a far less targeted place to which the Stein family “escaped” in the wake of the terrorist attacks. The family includes Arthur (the ever natural and real Keith Kupferer), a bear of a man deeply traumatized after he somehow made it out of his office in one of the Towers while 65 of his employees did not, and his wife, Sylvia (a perfectly manic Tina Glushenko), who spent 9/11 believing her husband had perished, and who has suddenly become a feverish devotee of the Christian notion of “the rapture,” and Christ’s Second Coming. As for the couple’s brainy, super-rational, punkish teenage daughter, Rachel (Sari Sanchez, a beautiful, wonderfully animated, mood-shifter of an actress who channels a bit of Tuesday Addams here), she is driven to distraction by her mother’s new-found “cultlike” obsession.
Luckily, Rachel also has an undeterrable admirer, Nelson Steinberg (Stephen Sefalu Jr., perfection as the most beguiling nerd imaginable), her neighbor and classmate. Nelson attracts all the wrong kind of attention by wearing an Elvis Presley costume to school. A non-Jew who has been adopted by a Jewish couple, he is now preparing for a late bar mitzvah. But his main pursuit is Rachel, a whiz at math, who rejects him flatly at the start, but who is finally won over when he introduces her to Hawking’s book, “A Brief History of Time.”
Jesus himself (a very savvy turn by Steven Strafford, who also does a terrific job as a droll Hawking), moves in and out of the house for brief encounters with Sylvia. But it is Nelson, driven by love, and his essentially sweet (even when suffering) nature, who works his own little miracles of transformation. And he might just be the authentic Jesus figure in Laufer’s play.
Director Henry Godinez has a fine grasp of all the countervailing fears, longings, sense of tradition, wonder and humor in the play. And aided and abetted by set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge — with lighting by Heather Gilbert, sound by Kevin O’Donnell and costumes by Jeremy W. Floyd — he has navigated the Playhouse’s vast, rather unconventional space to fine effect. In fact, not only does the play move its characters back into the here and now, but it leaves the audience daring to dream of the future.
Note: The Playhouse itself, whose design was overseen by veteran theater architect John Morris, features surprisingly fine sound and comfortably upholstered pivoting chairs. The overall configuration of the space can be changed from show to show. And while the Playhouse itself is not the most accessible place in terms of public transportation (unless you live on the Irving Park bus line), it should become a strong magnet for the immediate neighborhood, and is a most welcome addition to the city’s theater scene.