Upon entering Festive Pines, audiences are met with an open space surrounded by seats taken from various modes of transportation, including busses and vans. Spread throughout are colorful cozy blankets, as well as tall heaters. Christmas music fills the air, and patrons sip warm drinks from Uncommon Ground right next door.
By day the lot serves as a Christmas Tree market. By night – at least for the first two weeks of December – the space becomes a performance venue, and the lot transforms into the world Jacqui Honess-Martin’s play.
Arianna Soloway presents Pine at Uncommon Ground
Written by Jacqui Honess-Martin and directed and produced by Arianna Soloway, Pine follows five young characters from very different worlds. Taj (Sunny Anam), starved for romantic love, is pursuing his PhD in Oncology and Cancer Research, while Betty (Aria Szalai-Raymond) is just trying to finish her undergraduate degree. Joe (Logan Hulick), a professional rugby player, is nursing a serious injury, Gabby (Elise Spoerlein) is finding her place in the world of freelance journalism, and Sami (Martin Hanna) just hopes his Christmas Tree lot succeeds in their sales goals.
These five characters are brought together by a seasonal job at Sami’s lot, and as the days move closer to Christmas, they all learn that each individual’s story might be more complicated than first impressions may imply. As with any Christmas story, each of them even learns a little something about themselves along the way.
The Site-Specific Location
It is impossible to discuss Soloway’s production without first acknowledging her selection of location, which is the Christmas Tree lot outside of Uncommon Ground. The choice is brilliant, and creates a lovely intimate setting for this deeply personal and naturalistic play. The design elements – such as Sound Designer Eric Backus’ Christmas music and Lighting Designer Jessica Doyle’s use of typical outdoor lamps aid in transporting the audience into the world of the play.
There is no stage, but rather a small, open space surrounded by Christmas Trees. Set Designer John Holt utilizes crates and hay bales that are used for furniture as needed, and the close proximity to the “stage” allows the audience to fully immerse themselves into those emotional experiences. Each character delves into a journey of self-discovery over the course of the play – from Taj’s confession that there is a little in his life about which he is passionate, to Gabby’s realization that she is meant for more than simply selling trees every year, and owes it to herself to follow her dreams.
Honess-Martin’s piece is certainly a slice-of-life kind of play, with every interaction feeling natural within the everyday setting of the Christmas tree lot. The script is full of subtle wit that keeps the audience laughing, and helps add life to the everyday interactions unfolding on stage.
The playwright's story explores the deep, personal questions that young people face as they enter this new stage in their lives. What is one to do after graduating from university? Should one sell out and take a high-paying job, or is it more important to follow one’s dreams? Is it enough to simply pursue a career because one is good at it? Where does love factor into the mix? Honess-Martin encourages audiences to take a look within as we approach the holidays and he new year, and invites a little self-reflection alongside her characters.
Every interaction feels honest and real, and Soloway clearly worked with her actors to help emphasize those qualities in their performances.
Sunny Anam’s creates a Taj with an adorable sense of awkwardness, which is certainly relatable. As he struggles to find the right words to say to Gabby, with whom we learn early-on he has a small history, the audience always chuckles, and the challenges help the audience root for him even more when he finds later success with Betty. In contrast, Martin Hanna’s Sami is outspoken, and he utilizes some spot-on comedic timing to deliver hilarious one-liners.
Aria Szalai-Raymond’s Betty comes across as extremely confident, and over the course of the play, as her personal challenges begin to rise to the surface, Szalai-Raymond infuses a heartbreaking quality, making the character one for whom it is easy to sympathize.
Logan Hulick’s Joe is quiet and charming, acting as one of the more stable characters and a grounding force in the play, and showcasing a lovely stage chemistry with Spoerlein's Gabby. Especially as the audience learns more about his injury and potential for a crushing impact on his dreams of professional rugby, Hulick’s honesty and strength within his character helps those moments shine.
Finally, Elise Spoerlein has a challenging role to play. Gabby drives so much of the story, and carries the weightiest redemption arc in the piece. However, Spoerlein certainly rises to the challenge, with a sense of comedic timing that highlights the subtle humor of the play in a lovely manner.
Witty and charming, Pine creates a lovely compliment to all of the traditional Christmas stories popping up at this time of year.
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.
Through December 10, 2017
Friday at 6:00pm
Saturday at 6:00pm
Sunday at 6:00pm
Run Time: 2 hours with intermission.
1401 W. Devon Avenue
Chicago, IL 60660
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.