Last year’s Gift Theatre production of Mat Smart’s “The Royal Society of Antarctica,” an alternately poignant and hilarious play about social outcasts working in one of the more isolated places in the world, was such an offbeat charmer that I still repeat one of its funniest lines to friends.
Smart’s ineffable magic is on display once again as Theater Wit presents the Chicago debut of “Naperville,” a quirky, deeply poetic homage to the affluent western suburb in which the now New York-based playwright was raised. The production, expertly directed by Jeremy Wechsler, features a cast of five actors whose performances are sheer perfection. But what is most remarkable here is Smart’s piercingly honest and humane portrait of ordinary people caught up in all the elements of frustration, loss, guilt, disappointment, brokenheartedness, faith, hope, fear, adaptation and determination that are part of every life. In essence, “Naperville” is a play about the act of breathing — of staying alive. And it is bound to leave you breathless.
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Theater Wit,
1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $12 – $36
Info: (773) 975-8150;
Run time: 1 hour and
35 minutes with no intermission
Set in a Caribou Coffee shop in downtown Naperville (designer Joe Schermoly’s clever photo-realist set even boasts a stone fireplace and foldout restroom), the play homes in on TC (Andrew Jessop), a nerdy, fervently eager-to-please barista/manager, and his four customers.
Already at her table — fully caffeinated, writing on napkins and periodically recording her thoughts about Joe Naper, the 19th century ship captain, ship builder, farmer and early developer of the settlement that would become Naperville — is Anne (Abby Pierce). A pretty, self-critical, 32-year-old divorcee who graduated from Waubonsie Valley High School, Anne is now back “home,” living with her parents and spending her days in residence at the Caribou while trying to devise some sort of project for herself — perhaps a podcast.
Enter longtime customer Candice (Laura T. Fisher), with her handsome son, Howard (Mike Tepeli). Candice is an attractive woman of 60, who has recently gone blind after falling off a ladder and suffering from detached retinas. Howard, 32, who just moved to Seattle for a job, has now flown home to care for her. Their relationship is prickly, with Candice hellbent on dealing with her sudden loss of independence, and Howard trying to protect her, even as she completely embarrasses him by blatantly trying to match him up with Anne. (As it turns out, Anne was a schoolmate of Howard’s, but part of the “in crowd” that decidedly did not include him.)
Arriving a bit later is another local, Roy (Charlie Strater), a “loving kindness evangelical” type who strikes up an instant friendship with Candice, and generates more than a little concern and skepticism in Howard. Roy seems to have money (he takes his sailboat out on Lake Michigan). He does charitable work in Third World countries. He speaks a great deal about Jesus. And he cannot be easily deterred. Maybe he’s just too good to be true. Maybe he is for real. Who knows?
Smart’s characters are full of comically recognizable neuroses and eccentricities. But by means of his almost indescribable magic and poetry, the playwright also reveals the very real sense of how scared, lonely and stuck they are, and how their hunger for a sense of purpose keeps them going. Like the pioneering Joe Naper — who left the sea to build something more permanent on land — they are all, in their own ways, uncertain strivers.
What also sets Smart’s play apart is how he subtly but winningly goes against the grain of cynical dismissal of the suburbs that has been so prevalent in recent decades (and I say this as a born-and-bred city rat). He clearly understands all the pitfalls of those green oases that stretch beyond urban centers, but at the same time he transcends the often snarky and dismissive attitudes about them in a surprising way.
Fisher’s performance as a newly blind woman with no patience for pity or obfuscation is utterly convincing, as is Tepeli’s suggestion of a young man still emerging from his shell (and his mother’s control). Pierce’s sense of anger at the failure and betrayal in her marriage is palpable. Strater makes Roy’s indestructible connection to God at once laughable and true. And then there is Jessop, who so beautifully suggests how his manic attempts to please his customers pales in comparison to his passion for the clarinet — an instrument that is all about breathing. And all about life.
One final note: Several of the play’s characters struggle to name the five Great Lakes. Of course there is an easy acronym for that: HOMES — for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.