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Theater Review:

"ABSOLUTION" at The Merle Reskin Garage Theatre at Steppenwolf

BY LUCIA MAURO

Steppenwolf ensemble member Martha Plimpton applies the same unwavering commitment and laser-focus so prevalent in her acting to her directorial debut for Robert William Sherwood’s psychological thriller, "Absolution." But her admirable skill, which she extends to her fiercely insightful cast, cannot override the Canadian playwright’s erratic and ill-defined script. Sherwood purports to address issues of personal responsibility, ingrained codes of behavior and a truly eviscerating disregard for human life.

But in "Absolution," playing at the Merle Reskin Garage Theatre at Steppenwolf, these ideas get crudely hammered out through a rough and rambling series of conversations among a generally vile group of characters who cancel out any genuine sense of debate. Sherwood’s writing style adds to the vacillating and vacant confusion. The opening scene in a bar reads like a David Mamet spoof, then the play meanders into a clumsy mix of naturalism and abstraction that further removes audiences from the critical issues at hand.

The play begins cryptically as David, a cynical classics-professor-turned-proofreader, meets an old high school acquaintance, the sexy Lorraine, who hands him a playing card of the Queen of Spades. Lorraine was sent by David’s estranged high school friend, Gordon, who is now a successful financial mover and shaker. The card is a subtle Code Red that refers to a vicious crime David, Gordon and another friend Peter committed 20 years earlier. Peter, a born-again Christian, feels the need to confess their horrific secret. Gordon, an aggressive player with a trophy wife and a mistress (Lorraine), sends for David to help him prevent Peter from going to the authorities.

But David is the creepiest of this morally challenged triumvirate. He believes in nothing, feels not even the slightest twinge of guilt and appears to have no qualms about snuffing out another innocent life. We also are exposed to Gordon’s uncomfortably self-righteous (and no doubt deeply unhappy) wife Anne, whom David tries to seduce. She turns out to be a smug, self-interested character as despicable and vapid as everyone else, including the rootless Lorraine and the remorseful but misguided Peter. It’s nearly impossible to care about any of these abysmally written characters.

Sherwood attempts to write a suspense drama, then proceeds to give most of the answers away in one fell swoop of nauseating descriptions. The rape and murder these men allegedly committed will turn audience’s stomachs – especially the cold and diabolical way it’s recounted. One gets the nagging sense that the playwright was tantalized by the shock such ugly revelations would elicit.

Yet the work is also oddly boring and ponderous. All the characters do is talk at each other, pouring out their skewed stances and spelling everything out for the audience even though they are basically telling different versions of the same story. We’re constantly reminded that humans have a "dark side" and that things are really not as they seem. Memories -- and their revisionist nature -- are the underlying subject of this play, which also asks how truly connected or detached we are from our past actions.

Unfortunately, Sherwood gets tangled in his own obscure moral dilemmas and can’t seem to extricate himself from the confounding complications. The play goes nowhere; and all we are left with is an icy, irreversible nihilism.

Plimpton, on the other hand, must be commended for coaxing high-octane performances from her cast. As David, Coby Goss pairs a certain down-on-one’s-luck innocence with spine-chilling manipulation. Frank Dominelli’s belligerent, no-holds-barred Gordon is an over-heated counterpart to Michael Loeffelholz’s stammering and guilt-racked Peter, who suffers from a denial of another kind – one that’s wrapped in distracting religious fervor.

Jennifer Kern humanizes the obscurely written Lorraine, while Danica Ivancevic’s appropriately mechanical Anne encapsulates the discomfort and falseness plaguing all the characters. Cecil Averett’s lethal sound design and Jaymi Lee Smith’s enigmatic lighting set this production’s eerily mesmerizing tone.

Too bad the playwright has not approached his script with the same rigorous scrutiny the Steppenwolf Garage artists give to this relentlessly harsh yet stylish production.•

"Absolution" runs through November 18 at the Merle Reskin Garage Theatre at Steppenwolf, 1624 N. Halsted. Tickets: $10. Call 312-335-1650 or log onto www.steppenwolf.org.

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