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In Simon Stephens’ ‘Wastwater,’ tales from the (very) dark side

Caroline Neff and Peter More in Steep Theatre's U.S. premiere of Simon Stephens' play, "Wastwater." (Photo: Gregg Gilman and Lee Miller)

Well before British playwright Simon Stephens received the 2015 Tony Award for best play for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (his fascinating adaptation of the novel of the same name by Mark Haddon), his work was being championed by two Chicago companies — Steep Theatre and Griffin Theatre — and by Jeff Award-winning director Robin Witt. And Steep, which staged the U.S. premieres of both “Harper Regan” and “Motortown,” had named him its inaugural associate playwright.


Highly recommended

When: Through Aug.13

Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn

Tickets: $25 – $35

Info: (866) 811-4111;

Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission

Now, Witt has helmed yet another U.S. premiere of a Stephens play for Steep — his 2011 “Wastwater.” It is a pitch-black triptych that imagines a series of encounters among people who have already walked on the very dark side of life, or are about to step into the abyss. In the process, they reveal their most shameful experiences and hidden desires – their need for love and punishment, closeness and exile, thrills and safety.

But before going any further, this warning: “Wastwater’ (which takes its name from the deepest lake in England, whose calm surface belies the dangers that can lie beneath, much as is the case with human beings), is awash in adult content. And oddly it feels all the more perverse and twisted because it is language and psychological brutality — more than explicit sex or violence — that leaves you feeling violated and dirty. The acting here — and it is superb seals the corrupt and corrupting deal.

Nick Horst and Kendra Thulin in the Steep Theatre production of Simon Stephens’ play, “Wastwater.” (Photo: Gregg Gilman and Lee Miller)
Nick Horst and Kendra Thulin in the Steep Theatre production of Simon Stephens’ play, “Wastwater.” (Photo: Gregg Gilman and Lee Miller)

The specific links among the three plays are subtle, and can only be pieced together after its three distinct sections have played themselves out. But airports (and the notion of taking off, landing, and being in transit — perhaps on the way to Hell) form one element in the connective tissue. So do foster homes, troubled marriages, sex and alcohol abuse, money (or the lack of it), and even the slightest echo of a theme from Bizet’s “Carmen,” that most fate-driven of operas.

The first episode, set against the large, beautifully curved, rain-splattered glass wall of a greenhouse that stands beneath the flight path to London’s Heathrow Airport, is a farewell scene. Frieda (beautifully played by Melissa Riemer) is a widow in late middle-age who has raised many foster children in her time, and is now bidding goodbye to Harry (a deftly haunted Joel Boyd), one of her most difficult, but ultimately most promising charges as he flies off to Vancouver, Canada, to work on an ecological project. Harry might well be her last “child,” and she senses the loneliness that will come with his departure. But for the guilt-ridden Harry (who must flee a major event in his recent past), it is an essential chance to start anew. Neither of the two have the ability to fully embrace and express their feelings, but unquestionably these feelings run as deep as Wastwater itself.

A hotel room at Heathrow is the setting for the play’s second scene which initially seems to be about a mutually opportunistic anonymous sex tryst between two travelers. But that is just the start in the kinky push-and-pull that unfolds as the emotionally warped Lisa (Kendra Thulin), manipulates the rather nervous, but ready-for-something Mark (Nick Horst), and ensnares him in the most sordid details of her life as a police officer with a taste for heroin — a habit that eventually drew her into a lucrative sideline in porno films. Lisa is a very troubled woman who is not sure if she wants to be loved or beaten, and Mark, clearly filled with guilt about betraying his wife, is drawn to act on a part of his nature he might not have otherwise explored. Sick, sick, sick, and played to chilling effect by Thulin and Horst.

Sicker yet is the third segment of “Wastwater,” in which Jonathan (an eerie turn by Peter Moore), a handsome man in middle age, is in the final stages of closing a perilous, nefarious deal with the sexy, sadistic and commanding Sian (a terrifically terrifying Caroline Neff), an operative in an international child trafficking network. Jonathan seems to have cold feet about his “adoption” of a nine-year-old Filipino girl (the heart-piercingly lovely and silent Bernadette Santo Schwegel), on whom he clearly has the most revolting, predatory designs. But it is too late to back out of this deal in which multiple power plays are at work.

Witt’s tightly wired direction is enhanced by Joe Schermoly’s handsome set, Brandon Wardell’s evocative lighting (with flickering that might or might not have been triggered by a storm on opening night), and Thomas Dixon’s roaring sound.Be advised: You almost certainly will leave the theater in need of a deep-cleansing shower.

NOTE: Simon Stephens is scheduled to visit Steep Theatre, July 21-25, for a reading and other activities.

Joel Boyd and Melissa Riemer in the Steep Theatre production of Simon Stephens’ “Wastwater.” (Photo: Gregg Gilman and Lee Miller)
Joel Boyd and Melissa Riemer in the Steep Theatre production of Simon Stephens’ “Wastwater.” (Photo: Gregg Gilman and Lee Miller)