Road to drama, paved with good intentions

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By Doug Deuchler

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The new production at 16th Street Theater, Do-Gooder,  is a perfect example of what this intrepid company does best: It's an edgy, urban drama with a fascinating social message yet it never comes across as preachy or didactic. 

I keep banging the drum for this outstanding troupe in Berwyn. But if you've not yet ventured over there, just four blocks south of Oak Park, this show — a "world premiere" — is an especially strong experience. It's absorbing, well cast, dynamic, and one of those works that makes you see things with different eyes. It has been Jeff-nominated.

16th Street Theater, for six seasons, has produced works by 23 Illinois playwrights. The company definitely has a niche that sets them apart. Their post-show dialogues with their audiences probe the themes and conflicts within each production. Best of all, their admission price is affordable. The top ticket is $18.

Chicago playwright Laura Jacqmin's new work, Do-Gooder, is attention-grabbing from the get-go. Director Ann Filmer has mounted a tight, realistic and involving production.

A Princeton-educated, affluent African-American couple has just purchased a two-flat in a predominantly white neighborhood and are sharing glasses of wine and hors d'oeuvres following dinner in the apartment of their tenants, a white couple who, like them, are childless and about the same age. Though the four characters make light, pleasant conversation, the focus turns brittle when the landlords, Carmel and Gordon, announce their intention of leasing the other apartment to a low-income black family. This means displacing their white renters. 

LaNisa Frederick and Kyle Haden are strong and credible as the new owners of the greystone, located somewhere near the Blue Line. Carmel is an ambitious, assertive corporate success who feels strongly committed to her sense of altruism: She wants to come to the aid of some needy folks by providing them with affordable housing in their building. Her husband Gordon, a literature professor, is on the same page in terms of social commitment, yet there is friction lurking in their relationship. 

Well-intentioned Carmel and Gordon are committed to making a difference and seek to free up the other apartment asap. They expend a lot of energy focusing on how to attract their ideal renters, "really nice people," who will allow them to make a difference.

The white couple, meanwhile, who rent month-to-month and so can easily be nudged out, are Erik and Nora. Well-played by Rob Fagin and Meghan Reardon, this pair is more complex. Erik, though seemingly upbeat and handy like an in-house Mr. Fix-It, is pompous and controlling. His wife Nora, a former waitress from Indiana who grew up in a dysfunctional family and lived in Section 8 housing, is downtrodden and, we learn, forlornly unsatisfied. Though she seems bright, she is the only one of the group who did not attend college. 

Landlord Gordon, a sweet, perceptive man who also feels frustrated but for different reasons, recognizes and focuses on Nora's lack of fulfillment. Her husband, who is in banking/financial planning, tries to dominate her and forbids her from taking a class at the Harold Washington College in the Loop.

What I like about this play is that layers of theme and characterization keep unfolding, and the plot is never predictable.

The subtle drama raises significant questions about class, gender, and race without beating us over the head. The play generates a lot of food for thought and discussion. I'd recommend seeing this production with someone who likes to talk after the show. 

The dramatic works mounted in the current season at 16th Street Theater focus on "How To Be Good." This might seem like a simple enough mission, yet we clearly see how complicated and challenging mere "doing good" can be.

John Holt's scenic design, which shows the central living area of a renovated two-flat, functions well as both apartments with some quick alterations. Holt's set is a masterly use of perspective which seems to dramatically maximize the rather intimate performance space.

The drama unfolds cinematically with lots of quick scene shifts, so the actors often remove a sweater or whatever during the transitional blackouts to indicate a different time.

The original music and sound design is by Barry Bennett. The expressive lighting is by Erik S. Barry.

Dominique Caldwell is the stage manager.

Do-Gooder, which runs through Feb. 22, is intense, touching, and smart. Filmer & Co. give the audience lots to think about.

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