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In ‘Rightlynd,’ an idealist embraces Chicago politics — but at what cost?

Monica Orozco (front) stars as Nina in Ike Holter's "Rightlynd" at Victory Gardens Theater | Liz Lauren Photo

Anish Jethmalani (from left), Jerome Beck, and Monica Orozco (as Nina) in Ike Holter's "Rightlynd" at Victory Gardens Theater | Liz Lauren Photo

The latest in playwright Ike Holter’s interconnected cycle of seven plays set in his imagined 51st Ward of Chicago, “Rightlynd” finally introduces us to the neighborhood’s embattled Alderman Nina Esposito. The play that centers her is a disarmingly playful, righteously angry and ultimately mournful kind of civic fable.

Holter’s 51st Ward, known to locals as Rightlynd, is a stand-in for any number of Chicago neighborhoods in transition — simultaneously facing down gangs and gentrification, school closures, economic displacement, predatory developers, and City Hall.

When: Through December 23
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $31 – $61
Info: victorygardens.org
Run time: 1 hour 35 minutes, with no intermission

Esposito has been referenced, though never seen, in some of the four other plays the prolific writer has produced in the series since 2014: “Exit Strategy,” “Sender,” “Prowess” and “The Wolf at the End of the Block.” (The final two pieces of the puzzle are due to premiere in early 2019, at Steep Theatre and the Goodman.)

In those prior works, the alderman is characterized by others as a sellout, withdrawn from her constituents and in the pocket of corporate interests. “Rightlynd,” which is chronologically the first entry on Holter’s timeline, jumps back in time to show us how Nina Esposito got that way.

When we meet her, Nina (played by Monica Orozco in the early going as the kind of spitfire naïf you can’t help but rally behind) is standing up at the kind of perfunctory community meeting where developers lay out what they plan to do to a neighborhood and make a show of listening to residents’ concerns. Only here, because she’s not a business owner — just a lifelong community member — Nina is told in no uncertain terms that her opinions don’t matter.

We should probably note here that Nina’s opponent in this debate is the self-described “sentient embodiment” of a Borg-like redeveloper identified as the Applewood Foundation. But any vestige of non-profit well-meaning that might once have powered Applewood (played by Jerome Beck, with backup-dancer assists by LaKecia Harris and Sasha Smith) has long since been subsumed. Nina is up against a monomaniacal organism designed only for killing a neighborhood’s character. Inspired by a conversation with a neighborhood reporter (Anish Jethmalani), she decides to mount a last-minute political campaign against the out-of-touch local alderman — and wins by a single vote, cast live on television by her friend Robinson (Robert Cornelius).

Clearly, we’re not dealing with kitchen-sink realism. Holter’s situations and, especially, his language are always heightened, and he’s taken a variety of stylistic approaches to the entries in the 51st Ward collection; up to now, the most fanciful was in 2016’s “Prowess,” in which a quartet of Rightlynd denizens secretly train to fight the ’hood’s crime epidemic as comic-book style vigilantes.

But for “Rightlynd,” Holter pulls out all of the realistic stops, the better to express his disdain for the city’s entire political system. The play is peppered with giddy, full-on musical numbers (with music by Charlie Coffeen of the band Sidewalk Chalk and lyrics by Holter), a full-cast fight sequence, and raucously self-aware comic interludes.

But Holter’s editorial cartooning isn’t just for giggles. Applewood, in its garishly focused greed, calls to mind any number of controversial mega-projects currently underway, such as Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards development on the North Side or the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park; communities around both of those massively transformative propositions have expressed the feeling that they had little say in stopping seemingly unstoppable forces.

And given what those who’ve seen the previous plays know about Nina’s ultimate corruptibility, we’re poised for tragedy from the moment she makes her first highly dubious compromise. “Rightlynd” lucks into a bit of post-election resonance, as well, in its depiction of a long-shot candidate learning the limits of idealism. When Orozco’s Nina emerges onstage after her dark-horse win, wearing a  politician’s suit and with her hair newly pulled back and parted down the center, it’s hard not to think director Lisa Portes and costume designer Samantha C. Jones are intentionally evoking Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Portes’s staging and Holter’s script share a mostly endearing messiness, but there are places you hope it can be tightened up; Nina’s love interest Pac (Eddie Martinez) and the couple’s romance both feel underwritten, and the production in Victory Gardens’s upstairs studio reads like it was underbudgeted. Much of the cast, too, struggled at times with Holter’s mouthfuls of lines on opening night. But these are minor issues for a story that gets so much about the Chicago way all too right.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.