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Potent ‘Monster’ explores guilt, innocence, workings of a trial

Daniel Kylie and Cheryl Graeff star in "Monster," a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Is 16-year-old Steve Harmon “guilty” beyond all reasonable doubt? Is he “innocent” as he has pleaded all along? Or is there some gray area that seems to hover above his case, triggering the most subtle suggestion of ambivalence in the accused, his parents and his defense attorney?

Highly recommended
When: Through March 9
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Theater
Tickets: $20
Info: www.steppenwolf.org
Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

It is this “gray area” that makes “Monster,” the superbly rendered “court procedural” that is the latest Steppenwolf for Young Adults show (designed for high school audiences, but open to the general public on weekends) so intriguing. There is nothing better than to leave the theater still asking some crucial questions, and still casting a bit of doubt of your own on all that has transpired.

The other intriguing aspect of the show is built into Walter Dean Myers’ acclaimed 1999 young adult novel, the source of Aaron Carter’s sharply adapted stage version that has been crisply directed by Hallie Gordon, and is formidably performed by an A-list cast, all of whom, other than Daniel Kyri (who first caught my attention at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and only confirms his impressive gifts here), play multiple characters. And that aspect is the fact that Steve Harmon is an African-American teenager with a passion for making movies — a skill he studies in an after-school club, and for which he clearly has a genuine talent.

Daniel Kyri (left) and Namir Smallwood in the Steppenwolf for Young Adults world premiere of "Monster." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Daniel Kyri (left) and Namir Smallwood in the Steppenwolf for Young Adults world premiere of “Monster.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

It is 1999, and we are on the mean streets of New York. But Steve is a lucky kid. His dad (a poignant turn by Kenn E. Head) is a graduate of Morehouse College, his mother (Alana Arenas) clearly is well-educated, and both parents keep close watch on both him and his younger brother. As to why this family is living in “a bad neighborhood” — well, that is an unaddressed question here.

What we do know is that Steve has a filmmaker’s eye and a writer’s curiosity, and he strolls his neighborhood with a keen awareness, interacting with its good and bad characters, watching cement court basketball games, and trying not to get dangerously involved with anyone, including James King (Namir Smallwood), a practiced hustler with a record, who is in need of cash and has devised the plan for a crime that goes very wrong.

It is King who is charged with murdering the owner of a local pharmacy during a robbery, but it is Steve who faces the same charges because he has been fingered as “the lookout” by Richard “Bobo” Evans (a guy with a long rap list, played by Head), and Osvaldo Cruz (Tevion Devin Lanier), both of whom have entered plea bargains.

The play begins as Steve, sitting in a prison cell, writes in his diary as he awaits trial. He has been branded a
“monster” by the prosecutor (Arenas is the very model of a highly skilled, often over-reaching attorney), and is wrestling with a situation that seems almost surreal to him, yet all too real. His defense attorney (a finely pitched turn by Cheryl Graeff), is professional and determined, but she never probes him too deeply about his actual innocence or guilt.

The events of the trial, and much that came before it, unspool in third person as we watch Steve (who is being charged as an adult, and could face decades in prison), imagining the movie version of his story, and frequently reworking a scene for clarity or a shift of emphasis. Along the way we hear the actual testimony of various witnesses, including Steve’s film club mentor (well-played by Chris Rickett), and King’s pretty but unreliable cousin (played by Ginneh Thomas), and there are fine scenes in which Steve interacts with his fellow prisoners, all in bright orange jumpsuits, and with his parents, whose visits to the prison are painful and awkward.

“Monster” subtly raises the question of how “a good kid” can fend off bad influences without being marked as uncooperative or weak. It also should open up many questions about the whole process of criminal trials, from legal tactics to witness reliability.

But the real emotional punch here comes from the issues that linger for the accused once the trial is over. I will not give away the verdict, but will say only that the response of Steve’s lawyer is chillingly real, and devastating, and is a memorable commentary on how our justice system works, for better and for worse.

Alana Arenas plays a prosecuting attorney in the Steppenwolf Young Adults production of "Monster." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Alana Arenas plays a prosecuting attorney in the Steppenwolf Young Adults production of “Monster.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)