Agency Theater Revives Chagrin Falls
Mia McCullough’s award-winning Chagrin Falls makes a welcome return to Chicago, courtesy of the Agency Theater Collective’s revival of the provocative 2001 drama. Set in a small Oklahoma town where the population survives economically on two institutions dedicated to killing – a cattle slaughterhouse and a prison with an execution chamber – Chagrin Falls probes the human condition, not gore and violence.
Saturday night’s performance at the Den Theatre, a multi-theatre complex in Bucktown, was a testament to Chicago’s love of homegrown theatre: In competition with the Cubs’ World Series game, pre-Halloween partying and unusually warm weather, the show still drew a lively audience. The irony of passing Milwaukee Avenue’s sports bars and The Den’s hipster bars to get to the Agency Theater Collective’s stage-set bar was not lost on this reviewer. A deeper reality can be found in the small town watering hole onstage where McCullough’s imperfect people come at all hours for coffee and bourbon, eggs and toast, sustenance and solace.
Chagrin Falls’ Compassionate Characters
Stoic but weary Irene (Denise Hoeflich) runs the bar-restaurant-motel operation that serves both the local population and outsiders who come to observe executions. Some of Irene’s casual comments hit hard with their harrowing specificity. She never rents guest rooms to relatives of victims and relatives of their condemned killers at the same time – it’s either one side or the other. Before lethal injection replaced the voltage-consuming electric chair, she recalls how her lights flickered during an execution and came back on when the prisoner was dead.
Early in the play, Asian-American Patrice (Jennifer Cheung) checks into Irene’s motel with plans to interview an inmate slated for execution, as well as town residents about capital punishment. Adopted as a toddler by an American couple, Patrice is the product of an unknown Vietnamese woman and a U.S. soldier. She charges headlong into conflict with Riley (Rob Koon) – a Vietnam vet, widower and recent retiree of the slaughterhouse who has little patience for the 26-year-old woman’s assumptions. Koon takes McCullough’s gloriously-written character and conveys its middle-age grief with authenticity and tenderness. So true is Riley to himself that he overwhelms Patrice with his straightforward view of duty and loss.
Public and Private Pain
Then there is Thaddeus (Cody Lucas), a very young prison guard who gave up college to care for his terminally-ill mother and who reveals himself more comfortably to outsider Patrice than the local preacher. Yearning to reinvent himself elsewhere, he struggles against his own over-exposed identity in tiny Chagrin Falls where if he gets a haircut, the whole town knows about it.
Thaddeus also shares powerful thoughts about the multiple avenues of death surrounding him. Experienced in handling prisoners during lethal injection, he argues that the process should be full of hot vengeance, not cool, procedural dispassion. And he wonders if involving so many different people in ending a single life – be it a cow or a human – is meant to provide a way for individuals to deny responsibility.
Packed with stories and issues, Chagrin Falls is an embarrassment of riches. Occasionally, the play feels too rich for its own good. But better to return to Milwaukee Avenue’s throng of Cubs fans and Halloween revelers with so much to consider. This is a show for those who wish to feel as well as think about important matters of life and death.
Now through December 4
Thursday –Saturday at 7:30 pm
Sunday at 3:00 pm
The Den Theatre
1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.
$28 at www.wearetheagency.org or call (773) 680-4596.
Photos: Bill Richert
About the Author:
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in spring 2017.
This review is excerpted in Theatre in Chicago