A psychological thriller, as opposed to a thriller, adds a why-dun-it to the whodunit question. Steven Dietz’s HOW A BOY FALLS, now its world premiere at Northlight Theatre, makes that clear from the outset: A boy will fall off a cliff and we won’t know who did it till the end. What really propels the story, however, is “why?”: the psychology of the parents and the nanny and two others who get involved in the plot that goes well beyond simple motives of gain or revenge.
HOW A BOY FALLS questions every identity
The play opens with Chelle (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) waiting in a coffeehouse to be interviewed by Miranda for a nanny position. Another patron, Mitch (Travis A Knight), strikes up a conversation with Sam (Sean Parris), who has been eyeing the attractive Chelle as he sips his coffee. The two men speculate on the reasons behind her anxious demeanor.
Instead of Miranda, Paul turns up at the coffeehouse to conduct the interview. Chelle presents herself as an experienced caregiver who needs work desperately to settle medical debts from her mother’s illness. Paul shares details about meeting his wife that portray him as a still-besotted husband and equally adoring father. It all comes off as nothing less than the truth. But that vibe doesn’t last.
Evolving personal histories at Northlight Theatre
After Chelle is hired and gets to know Miranda, the details change quickly. Middle-aged Miranda, pretty and sophisticated in her glamorous ocean-side home, reveals herself as an unhappy woman who didn’t want a live-in nanny in the first place. Bluntly, she remarks that Chelle looks several years past her stated age of 24, an observation that turns out to be valid.
As the play progress, who each person is and what they want comes under question. The alliances between the five characters, plus their own personal histories, keep evolving. When one person comes up with information about another, the source is usually an offstage connection (“I know a guy”). The only identity that we can be sure of is 4-year-old Alexander – and he never makes an appearance.
Mostly set in a coldly modern home on the precipice of an unseen ocean, HOW A BOY FALLS fills the stage with psychological textures. The intrigue is rooted in exactly what made the parents wealthy – a company that specializes in wiping its clients’ histories clean. Power in the 21st century lies in manipulating our electronic footprints. According to their separate accounts of their first date, tech whiz Miranda scribbled an algorithm that erases identities on a napkin for Paul (Tim Decker). They married quickly, Paul used Miranda’s idea for a profitable business and, late into their 40s, they had a child.
Halena Kays directs this 75-minute yarn with brisk efficiency, in this reviewer’s opinion. Yet, the production design doesn’t quite support the cast’s well-defined characterizations. Though Rick Sims’ sound effects indicate the water below, the set and lighting do not build on its glorious but perilous presence. Fortunately, Dietz’s script pulls us into his psychological thriller like an Artful Dodger who keeps us guessing about which wallet – which virtual identity card – he’ll pick next.
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
Title: How A Boy Falls
Written by: Steven Dietz
Directed by: Halena Kays
Tim Decker (Paul), Michelle Duffy (Miranda), Travis A. Knight (Mitch), Sean Parris (Sam) and Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Chelle)
Lizzie Bracken (Set Design), Izumi Inaba (Costume Design), Jason Lynch (Lighting Design), Rick Sims (Sound Design), Jared Davis (Props), Rita Vreeland (Production Stage Manager), Ben Raanan (Assistant Director) and Tanya Palmer (Dramaturg)
Through February 29, 2020
Tuesdays: 7:30pm (January 28 only)
Wednesdays: 1:00pm (except February 19) and 7:30pm
Saturdays: 2:30pm (except January 25); and 8:00pm
Sundays: 2:30pm; and 7:00pm (January 26 and February 23 only)
Center for the Performing Arts
9501 Skokie Blvd
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.