Agreed: It's not that easy being 'good'

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By Doug Deuchler

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When I read the tagline in the advertising material for Agreed Upon Fictions at 16th Street Theater, I cringed a bit. The play sounded like a made-for-TV, mom-knows-best melodrama. So I was delighted to see that Shayne Kennedy's confident new work is fresh and engaging. 

The well-paced, compelling premiere production is tightly directed by Megan Shuchman. A top-notch cast brings up lots of emotions in this never-predictable, absorbing drama set in contemporary suburban Chicago.

Julie Ganey is touching and credible as Katie Angelo, a wife, mom, and former teacher, who is compassionate and upbeat but far from being a Pollyanna in rose-colored glasses. Katie and her husband are raising a sweetly-obedient, hockey-playing eighth-grader named Daniel (Theo Tougne). Ganey is so real, she never steps out of character — even in the few brief blackouts she folds dish towels or tidies her kitchen. 

Brian (Ed Dzialo), Katie, and Daniel have lived next door to an odd old man since they moved onto the block. This 70-something neighbor, Harold (Nick Polus), seems blurry about a lot of things, but Katie is kind to him, sensing his extreme loneliness and vulnerability. Many of Harold's conversations reflect back on his beloved deceased mother who was also a school teacher. Though the other neighbors, and even Katie's family, find Harold weird and annoying, she always stands up for him. She's consistently thoughtful and generous toward the shuffling old eccentric. 

Katie's brother, Mal (Malcolm Callan), and his wife, Dawn (Lauren Fisher), seem to barge in a lot in a comfortable extended-family, sitcom-like relationship. Mal is a cop who is simultaneously warm and thuggish. He's also quick with the quips. Despite being a problem play, there is a lot of joy and humor, too. 

Mal and Dawn talk of their daughter's total involvement with Irish dancing; Brian and Katie's son is all about hockey. Everyone seems Catholic; Dawn even works at the local parish. All's right with their world until suddenly the block is swarming with police cars. There's a huge raid at Katie's elderly next-door-neighbor's house. They see Harold being led away in handcuffs.

Though initially it's assumed the old gentleman needs to vacate because his residence is one of those extreme hoarder situations, dangerous for its occupant, there's more to it. Though Harold's house is indeed so packed with trash it gets condemned, Mal reports they found disgusting "kiddie porno" on the premises — "teenage boy stuff." Is Harold a pedophile or a predator? Is Katie's son Daniel at risk? Has Harold possibly already bothered the boy?

The revelation of what's next door causes deep conflict in the neighborhood and especially within Katie's family. But after the house has been emptied of two dumpsters full of refuse, it's no longer slated for demolition and Harold is allowed to return. 

Immediately all of the neighbors turn against him except for Katie. Harold tells her, "You're my only friend." 

She remains staunch in her belief that he is helpless and merely befuddled, that he possibly was not even aware of the pornographic material within his home. Katie accuses her cop brother of always seeing the worst in people. She even argues with her husband Brian. Katie remains sympathetic, worrying that something traumatic had happened back when Harold was a boy. Perhaps he'd been a victim of sex abuse.

"I'm never going to apologize for not joining an angry mob," Katie says.

Katie and Brian initially cover the truth about what's been found next door when talking to their son. Katie lies to Daniel, telling him Harold got in trouble for tax evasion. But the boy keeps pushing until the real details come out.

Tougne is a superior young actor whose performance realistically embodies qualities from both Katie and Brian.

The conflict heats up as Katie herself is confronted with further doubt and confusion. 

This season, 16th Street Theater has been mounting dramatic works that address "How to Be Good." Kennedy's play is certainly a solid and engrossing exploration of this theme.

The night I attended Agreed Upon Fictions, there was a post-show "talk back." Playwright Kennedy told us her plot is based on a similar incident that happened in her neighborhood.

A drama works especially well for me if I find myself thinking about the characters and conflicts days later. I found myself wondering what happened to these people after the end of the play.

The scenic design is a modern kitchen by Mike Mroch. The set fills most of the performance space but there is a grassy area in front and in the back, too, for outside action. The lighting by Brandon Wardell is especially well done. Dominique Caldwell is the stage manager.

Agreed Upon Fictions is edgy and well-played. Kennedy's plot feels real and relevant. It makes you question yourself: Where would I stand if I were thrown into this conflict?

In other words, how hard is it to be "good"? 

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