Never has Goodman Theatre seemed more massive than during OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR. Charles Smith’s latest play opens with the sound of distant rifle fire and the faint outline of trees. Then, with every inch of stage height and width exposed, we are whisked from West Africa to a sleek living room in Adelaide, Australia.
It is there that young Shedrick (Daniel Kyri), a Liberian refugee, tells Rob Mosher (Ryan Kitley), a white Australian lawyer, about the bus driver who just called him a nigger. As tall as Shedrick’s outrage might be, he and his benefactor “Mr. Rob” are dwarfed by the full expanse of Riccardo Hernandez’ towering set. Africa, from which Shedrick escaped, and Australia, which took him in, are very big places.
In the West, a young man’s search for identity could mean finding a career path or a religious faith or a life partner. Amid Liberia’s bloody Civil Wars, such concerns are trivial. Identity and survival become inseparable. At any given moment, Shedrick’s identity – be it real or fabricated -- might determine whether he lives long enough to see the next moment.
Fear and insecurity in OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR
Fear and insecurity permeate OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR, set between 1995 and 2007. Each step inevitably involves grave danger -- from rebel groups that lurk in the jungle and control checkpoints to the disease and squalor of overcrowded refugee camps. In this milieu, a boy-soldier proves his mettle by “cutting out the beating heart of a child and eating it in front of his hysterical mother.” But even far from Liberia, on a serene Australian beach, the atmosphere of director Chuck Smith’s superb production is fraught. And that, in turn, keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Stories as lies, lies as stories
Shedrick stumbles towards maturity by learning stories. When his Uncle John (Allen Gilmore) fetches him from his grandfather’s home in the Guinean bush, Shedrick learns to tell his first simple story about buying and selling cigarettes in order to reach his adored mother safely in Monrovia.
“Promise me you’ll do whatever you must to survive,” Luopu (Lily Mojekwu) tells her son before Uncle John takes him on a much bigger journey -- to escape Liberia for the West. That requires a more complex story, a different name, new paperwork, altered familial relationships. Self-definition becomes malleable.
Years later, when Uncle John finally leads Shedrick and his cousins from harrowing Africa to sun-drenched Australia, the lies continue. It is to playwright Smith and director Smith’s respective credit that the lies always take us by surprise. Just as we settle into one truth, another one disrupts it. A story is a lie, a lie is a story.
Goodman Theatre’s compassionate cast
Faced with excruciating decisions throughout, Shedrick struggles to maintain basic decency and remain loyal to the uncle who risks everything. “We survive as one or we perish as one,” says Uncle John of family bonds. But what if that oneness in the new land of Australia begins to stifle the soul?
Smith poses this and other essential questions with vigor. The nuanced, compassionate cast fully rises to his challenge. Thrust into a cruel universe, one person seems tiny and yet in spirit nothing less than immense.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
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About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her short play Pam's Key opens in NYC in June and her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks later this year.