Pilgrims begins in the dark. A cloyingly sweet voice welcomes viewers aboard the Destiny, a spacecraft heading for a newly colonized planet. Soon the lights reveal one of the spaceship’s many cabins, a room whose galactic midcentury décor is reminiscent of the Hilton in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A soldier (Ed Flynn), wearing only a t-shirt and military-style cargo pants, paces the room, groaning as he nervously makes his bed. A fresh-faced teenager (Janelle Villas) soon arrives in the cabin, and, sliding the stuffed Jansport off her back, announces that she has been assigned the same room as the soldier.
First required to live together until the ship reaches cruising altitude, the two unlikely roommates are soon quarantined in the same cabin due to a viral outbreak aboard the Destiny. Their only contact with the outside world is Jasmine (Brittany Burch) a humanoid robot sporting the bright-orange garb of a 1970s airline stewardess. In the opening act, viewers learn that the Soldier is returning to the planet where he previously fought in a war against its native inhabitants, and that the Girl has been forced to leave Earth by an abusive father. But things are not as they seem; divulging any further would ruin the fun of navigating the plot’s labyrinthine twists and turns. As the play progresses, its script simultaneously zooms in on the characters’ drama and out to a future rife with violence and lies.
Gift Theatre Anchors Otherworldly Drama with Stellar Performances
At the heart of Pilgrims are excellent performances from Ed Flynn and Janelle Villas. Flynn’s Soldier is both excruciatingly unpleasant and undeniably sympathetic, a tormented veteran whose gruff demeanor and muscular physique belie the sadness that periodically flashes in his eyes. His face is slick with sweat, dripping from his unkempt hair to bushy mustache. He paces the room with arms crossed, sometimes stopping to sit on the floor and arch over a notebook. In short, his imposing presence commands the audience’s attention.
The Girl, played by Janelle Villas, provides a necessary counterweight to the Soldier’s gloom. She dashes around the room, jumps on the bed, and prods the Soldier with her theatrical gestures and endless talking. Her presence is not entirely sunny, however; her boundless energy, trapped in a small cabin for weeks on end, turns the room into a pressure cooker. Underneath the cheery façade lies the play’s most complex character, a girl whose emotional baggage is carried tremendously by a skilled actress like Villas.
If the Girl and Soldier are distinctly human, then Jasmine, an outdated, humanoid robot, is entirely the opposite. Brittany Burch tips viewers off to her character’s computerized nature even before we explicitly learn that Jasmine is a robot. Her smile is programmed and plastic; her steps are cold and calculated; her gestures are those of a computer approximating human mannerisms. From the small cap atop her 1960s hairdo to her glimmering boots of orange plastic, everything about Jasmine is unnervingly artificial.
Galactic Setting, Grounded Themes
The relationship between the Girl and Soldier is the play’s primary conflict, driving the story forward and lending emotional credence to a tale whose sweeping plot of interplanetary travel and earthly collapse could otherwise alienate viewers. Pilgrims builds an intensely emotional, character-driven drama out of assorted sci-fi tropes, like space travel, contagious disease, interplanetary war, robots, and aliens. Underneath the veneer of science fiction, though, Pilgrims tells a story whose themes of war, love and regret are – no pun intended – universal.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
June 9th through July 30th
Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 PM
Saturdays at 3:30 PM and 7:30 PM
Sundays at 2:30 PM
The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Avenue