Ike Holter concludes saga on a winning note with mighty ‘Lottery Day’

SHARE Ike Holter concludes saga on a winning note with mighty ‘Lottery Day’
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J. Nicole Brooks (as Mallory) and James Vincent Meredith (as Avery) in a scene from the Goodman Theatre production of “Lottery Day.” | Liz Lauren

One of the most gripping monologues in Ike Holter’s “Lottery Day” comes toward the end, when Zora (Sydney Charles) describes the “white, silent nothing” that has overtaken Rightlynd, the neighborhood where she grew up.

The gentrification of Chicago’s fictitious 51st Ward has been an ongoing theme for Holter, who closes out his seven-play “Rightlynd Saga” with “Lottery Day’’ at the Goodman Theatre. But with his final installment in the series, Holter hits harder than in his previous works.

‘Lottery Day’ ★★★1⁄2 When: Through April 28 Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $15 – $49 Info: Goodmantheatre.org Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission

Directed by Lili-Anne Brown, “Lottery Day” is hard-charging and confrontational. It unconventionally straddles genres: It’s a mystery about a large sum of money, a tragedy about a pair of untimely deaths and a comedy centered on shenanigans at a backyard barbecue. There is also a full-blown dance number.

The money, the mystery and the music are all vehicles Holter uses to get to the heart of “Lottery Day.” That heart is a damning commentary on gentrification. Zora isn’t alone in condemning the changes in Rightlynd. Tori (Aurora Adachi-Winter) makes a vow: She’ll do anything to make the incoming white people see that everything they’ve claimed in Rightlynd was built by the people they displaced.

You don’t need a familiarity with the previous Rightlynd plays to appreciate “Lottery Day,” but that familiarity will deepen your understanding of it, especially the references to neighborhood-shaping entities such as Nunley’s small grocery store, alderwoman Nina Esposito and the evil Applewood Foundation.

Pat Whalen (as Ricky, from left), Sydney Charles (as Zora) Tony Santiago (as Nunley), Robert Cornelius (Robinson) and James Vincent Meredith (Avery) in the Goodman world premiere of “Lottery Day” by Ike Holter, directed by Lili-Anne Brown at the Goodman T

Pat Whalen (as Ricky, from left), Sydney Charles (as Zora) Tony Santiago (as Nunley), Robert Cornelius (Robinson) and James Vincent Meredith (Avery) in the Goodman world premiere of “Lottery Day” by Ike Holter, directed by Lili-Anne Brown at the Goodman Theatre. | Liz Lauren Photo

The setting is a backyard barbecue in the fall of 2019. We’re at the home of Rightlynd matriarch Mallory (J. Nicole Brooks), a longtime Rightlynd resident who has gathered her nearest and dearest to a party expected to last from before sundown to after sunup.

It’s a party with a purpose. Mallory has a sack of money she’s determined to give away to whoever wins her backyard treasure hunt. It’s a game that will pit friend against friend and unleash chaos in the backyard. By the time the money shows up, the guests will have to come to grips with the disappearance of the neighborhood they’ve known for generations and they’re own fraying relationships.

Holter’s dialogue is about urgency, not making the audience comfortable. He starts on blast. Characters speak in rapid-fire paragraphs, constantly talking over each other trying to one-up each other in terms of volume and emphasis. Multiple conversations go on simultaneously. Trying to figure out where to focus is a fool’s task. You just have to trust that Brown will ensure what’s crucial makes itself known. It’s trust well placed. Brown has a gift for the rhythms of language, whether it’s sung or spoken. She knows how to make meaning shine through noise, even when every bit of that noise bears listening to.

For much of the first act, Holter keeps things from the audience. We don’t know why Mallory is making her loved ones battle each other for a stack of cash. We don’t know where that prize money came from. And while there are pointed references to a tragedy that befell Mallory’s family years before, Holter doesn’t clarify what happened until “Lottery Day” is almost over. He provides a detailed portrait of the present, leaving the background elements that shaped it tantalizingly out of focus. It’s intriguing and confounding.

Brown’s cast creates exquisitely detailed characters. The feeling that you know these people is immediate. This is Mallory’s play, and Brooks makes a deep impact as the ferocious, broken leading lady of the neighborhood. Mallory has survived the worst life has to dole out. And while she hasn’t survived intact, she has survived on her own terms. She’s well matched by James Vincent Meredith’s Avery, a man with a regal presence that exudes safety and security. Michele Vazquez’s clueless, obnoxious Vivian is the neighbor you love to hate. And Mallory’s financial advisor, McKenzie Chinn, is a friend pushed to her limits.

Sometimes, the foreshadowing is heavy-handed — there are several ominous references to the summer of 2016 that have all the subtlety of a minor-key organ chord crashing in the background. There are also a few plot holes, mostly to do with Mallory’s motivation. It’s eventually clear why Mallory wants to rid herself of her nest egg. It’s never clear why she’d put people she claims to love through such a potentially vicious competition to do so.

But those are relatively minor elements in a powerful whole. Arnel Sancianco’s set design could have been plucked from any of Chicago’s gentrifying neighborhoods. Take for example the towering, boxy, post-modern cube where Vivian literally looks down on Mallory’s next-door bungalow. Together, the two structures tell a striking, clear story before the first word of dialogue is uttered.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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