Now in its 11th season, 16th Street Theater has established itself as a company that puts on passionate, cutting edge productions about urgent issues. Their current work, Ike Holter’s exciting play, The Wolf at the End of the Block, is tightly plotted and insightful. It’s a Chicago crime thriller, strongly directed by Lili-Anne Brown, featuring five talented actors.
Though aspects of this production suggest film noir, with its mix of shadows, paranoia, moral ambiguity and escalating suspense, this contemporary mystery never devolves into a routine, comfortable whodunit. Conflicts explode among all the characters, and playwright Holter’s riveting dialogue generates a non-stop shower of sparks. The actors never sound stagy or contrived.
Abe (a nickname for Alejandro) is powerfully played by Alberto Mendoza. He shows up at his dead-end job late for work one morning, bloodied and disoriented. He was beaten up after late-night drinking in a cop bar. Was he the victim of an off-duty cop’s hate crime?
The drama addresses issues of racial profiling and, specifically, police brutality in communities of color. We are witnessing the debilitating effects of police oppression.
Abe’s kid-sister, Miranda (Gabriela Diaz), is loving but apprehensive. She wants to pursue a journalism career. Could her brother’s beating become a “story” for her?
Abe’s boss, Numley, is convincingly portrayed by Tony Santiago. He’s a family friend, yet like all the other characters, he’s complex and perceptive.
Enter Frida, a tough, no-nonsense investigative TV journalist, played by Stephanie Diaz. She’s hard-boiled but concerned and won’t take risks with this potential news story. Frida is too high-profile to feature anything that is not slickly, impeccably truthful. But ultimately, she decides to put Abe’s story on the air.
Christian Isely, the only white actor in the company, is scarily convincing as a menacing Chicago police officer. His portrayal is unnerving and ominous.
Abe is proud but insecure, damaged yet defiant. He has grown up in a world of fear and poverty. Will he be able to stand up and fight? Abe says, “Even Rosa Parks was not Rosa Parks.”
Swiftly paced, the production thrusts us immediately into a world of tension and insecurity, raising multiple issues, including media distortion and manipulation. All aspects of this relevant story grow more complicated the closer we get.
Jose Manuel Diaz-Soto’s scenic design features a detailed intersecting alley behind some businesses with lots of spray-painted graffiti, garbage cans, crates and peeling posters. The scene easily accommodates other locations with a change of lighting and other quick adaptations.
Cat Wilson designed the subtle yet always dramatic lighting, which heightens the uneasy mood and clearly establishes a tone of lurking evil in the noir vein.
Original music and sound design are by Barry Bennett, which features a strong bass at several points. In one emotionally challenging scene we hear Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” her painful ballad about lynching.
The Wolf at the End of the Block is timely, relevant and moves swiftly and cinematically, with complex characters. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission.
The evening I saw it, there was a “talk back” discussion following the performance, which featured the director and her cast, which was very insightful and fascinating.
Ike Holter, an outstanding playwright in his early 30s, is a strong voice on the contemporary Chicago theater scene, yet he purposely never clarifies just who the wolf in the title is. See this tight, electrifying nugget of a drama at 16th Street and decide for yourself.
“The Wolf at the End of the Block” runs Thursdays and Fridays, 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m., now extended through May 19. $22; $18 for military and their families, Berwyn residents and low income. Tickets/more: 708-795-6704, 16thstreettheater.org. 6420 W. 16th St., Berwyn.