When you start to realize what’s happening to the leading man in “To Catch a Fish,” it’s like watching a puppy getting kicked. Terry Kilbourn is affable, open-hearted and trusting. Brain-damaged after a childhood accident, Terry wants nothing more than for his new friends to like him. But as he hands out fliers advertising a new neighborhood store, his “friends” reveal themselves to be anything but.

Running through July 1 at TimeLine Theatre, Brett Neveu’s world premiere was inspired by real events, specifically a botched 2012 ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) sting operation in Milwaukee. As reported in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “Operation Fearless” was supposed get guns off the street with no-questions-asked buybacks to anyone willing to turn in their weapons.

‘To Catch a Fish’
★★★1⁄2
When: Through July 1
Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington
Tickets: $25 – $54
Info: timelinetheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours, including one intermission

“Operation Fearless” did take some guns off the street, but it also created new demand for them. Per the Journal’s investigative report, you could purchase a brand new gun at Walmart and sell it for three times the purchase price to the ATF’s pop-up storefront. Instead of netting high-powered arms dealers, the sting snared the likes of Chauncey Wright, a brain-damaged man with an IQ of 50 who had done little more than pass out promotional fliers.

Chauncey is the inspiration for Terry Kilbourn (Geno Walker), the troubled center of Neveu’s drama, set in Milwaukee and expertly directed by Ron OJ Parson.

Parsons brings the audience into Terry’s world from the start, painfully. Walker has a gentle, warm and placid presence that serves the role well. His careful speech, his mirroring of those around him, his way of deflecting difficulties with a shrug and a grin — all fill in the dots of a multi-dimensional character. Terry is brain-damaged, but in Neveu’s script he’s never infantilized or without dignity.

He is, however, ripe for exploitation. Terry balks when his new job duties take an unexpected turn, but after his bosses Ike (Jay Worthington), Dex (Stephen Walker) and G (AnJi White) shore him up with chummy, pep-rally exhortations, “King Terry” beams about his new responsibilities.

Dex (Stephen Walker, left) has a discussion with Dontre (Al’Jaleel McGhee) in “To Catch a Fish. ” | Lara Goetsch

Terry’s girlfriend Rochelle (Tiffany Addison) and Terry’s cousin Dontre (Al’Jaleel McGhee) figure out early that there’s something sideways about Terry’s new friends and employers. Dex and Ike present as back-slapping good-old-boys just trying to hustle up a dollar – until someone asks questions. There’s a angry darkness shading Dex’s demeanor that hints at pent-up violence and disgust, a dangerously combustible combination. Worthington’s Ike, meanwhile, makes you feel he’d be totally at home wielding a tiki torch at a skinhead rally.

As Terry’s fiercely protective grandmother Brenda, Linda Bright Clay is a tough, resilient matriarch, the kind of formidable woman who has a Bible reference ever at the ready (“It’s like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon around here”), no matter the topic of conversation.

McGhee’s Dontre is also powerful as he tries to shield his dangerously vulnerable cousin. Dontre has only one scene with Ike and Dex, and it’s a masterclass in subtext and razor-wire tension strung so tight you can practically here it snapping. When he learns Terry is getting paid in Newports and Rocawear, Dontre’s expression is worth a thousand words, indeed.

Rochelle is also vivid. In Addison’s portrayal, she’s a woman who has been hurt badly, and whose relationship with Terry is defined by innocence and that singular sense of well-being that comes when you know someone has your back no matter what.

Neveu stumbles toward the end of “To Catch a Fish,” as the sting ends abruptly for reasons too coincidental to be entirely believable. The final impact on Terry is unclear. As the drama winds up, Terry delivers a wistful monologue about fishing and describes a “dream” camping trip. There’s a joy and an innocence to his aspirations, like a kid planning a birthday party or dreaming of what they’ll be when they’re grown. Neveu doesn’t definitely say whether that innocence and joy has been stamped completely from Terry’s life. If they have, the culprit is clear in Neveu’s script. And it’s not necessarily the bad guys you’d expect.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

TIffany Addison and Geno Walker in “To Catch a Fish” at TimeLine Theatre. | Lara Goetsch