fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life | Theater review

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<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
  • Lily Mojekwu, Ian Daniel McLaren and Zoe Levin, from left, in fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life at Steppenwolf for Young Adults

    Photo: Michael Brosilow

  • Lily Mojekwu, Ian Daniel McLaren and Zoe Levin, from left, in fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life at Steppenwolf for Young Adults

    Photo: Michael Brosilow

  • Lily Mojekwu, Ian Daniel McLaren and Zoe Levin, from left, in fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life at Steppenwolf for Young Adults

    Photo: Michael Brosilow

  • Lily Mojekwu, Ian Daniel McLaren and Zoe Levin, from left, in fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life at Steppenwolf for Young Adults

    Photo: Michael Brosilow

  • Lily Mojekwu, Ian Daniel McLaren and Zoe Levin, from left, in fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life at Steppenwolf for Young Adults

    Photo: Michael Brosilow

Lily Mojekwu, Ian Daniel McLaren and Zoe Levin, from left, in fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life at Steppenwolf for Young Adults

Photo: Michael Brosilow


The title of a new play by Sarah Gubbins for Steppenwolf for Young Adults suggests that its teenage protagonist is rescued either literally or, in the tendency of high-schoolers toward hyperbole, figuratively, by an author from the American South who’s been dead for more than four decades. That’s not so, we learn, by the time the last line is spoken—the same as the first line of McCullers’s 1940 debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

No, the survival of Jo, a lesbian student at a La Grange Catholic school she calls “St. Paul the Unbearable,” can be credited to just a couple of people around her and Jo herself. Like too many gay teens, she counts her advocates on one hand. Fiona Robert, a Chicago Academy for the Arts student whom we interviewed for our preview, does admirable work as Jo, a role that would challenge an actor twice her 18 years.

Jo’s antagonists remain unseen, and we meet only one adult in her life. But one of many effective, creative choices in the 90-minute production is how we learn what we do know about, for example, Tyler, the physically and emotionally violent football player who’s also the boyfriend of Emma (Zoe Levin), Jo’s classmate and friend. Thanks to projections on rectangular panels above two rotating setpieces, we can see the screen of Emma’s cell phone and read the contents of her text messages. Jealous and sometimes drunk, Tyler badgers Emma about her relationship with Jo. “I’ll kill her if she touches you,” he texts, along with the news that he just punched a tree, lol.

High-schoolers tend to find questions and answers that don’t match up. Tyler’s a jerk, but he might or might not be part of a group of students who torture the eminently likeable Jo for being gay, smart and more than a little bit butch. Jo might or might not know what to do with her feelings for Emma, whose feelings might run vice versa, but both are certain that they want to be in each other’s lives in some way. The success of fml is due in large part to its spot-on recreation of those knife edges—between excited and overwhelmed, between absolutely certain and totally clueless—that make life’s twists cut so deeply in the months before graduation.

Two older characters—Jo’s wise-cracking brother, Reed (Bradley Grant Smith), and AP English teacher Ms. Delaney (Lily Mojekwu)—each get scenes that reveal the truth to Emma and Jo that grownups don’t always have the answers, either. Both actors are superb in showing their characters’ desire to provide at least enough answers to help the kids be at peace with their hearts’ hunts. As Jo’s BFF Mickey, Ian Daniel McLaren breathes life into what could easily be two-dimensional comic relief: a precocious, uptight gay boy with dreams of Europe and NYU. Giving Jo’s opposition as much depth would fix the show’s only major flaw. As it is, fml delivers a rousing sermon for the choir, absent relatable figures for audience members with the most to learn.

A reading assignment within the story, McCullers’s Lonely Hunter lends Gubbins’s terrific script a few yearning passages, via Mojekwu’s quick-witted and elegant Miss D. (She’s the kind of teacher that every child deserves to have at least once.) When these lines are crosscut with dialogue or with Jo’s direct expositions, both threads suffer, but Mojekwu’s uninterrupted solo recitations from Hunter punch the gut.

High-energy singles from hip acts such as Sleigh Bells, Dum Dum Girls and the Mae Shi set the tone loudly before the show. fml matches their momentum and meticulous cool. Heaps of kudos are due to Chelsea Warren, whose detail-rich stage designs spill the play’s scenes out of too-small boxes, in a nod to Jo’s passion for graphic novels. (A Chris Ware poster hangs on the wall of her bedroom, to the left of a shelf holding a basketball trophy and high-design toys à la Rotofugi.) Faux-crude, black-and-white illustrations and animations by Mike Tutaj sketch expressively the west-suburban milieu in which Gubbins grew up, and underscore that the world outside of St. Paul the Unbearable is for these kids—for all kids—to color in for themselves.

Which they can only do if they survive until it gets better. Ms. Delaney’s indictment of herself and her colleagues for failing to create a safe environment is, aside from devastating, the play’s bravest and most powerful statement.

fml is unsparing in its final scenes, directed as throughout with aplomb by Joanie Schultz, and in its use of adult language. Gubbins’s play isn’t for theatergoers not in junior- or high school themselves. But for all who are ready, this heartfelt call to action is a must-see.

fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life runs Saturdays ($20) and Sundays (two-for-one) through March 18 in the Downstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf (1650 N Halsted St, 312-335-1650). Performances March 10 and 17 are pay-what-you-can. A discussion with Chicago native and columnist Dan Savage, cocreator of the It Gets Better Project, and his brother Bill Savage, follows a special performance of the play on Friday, March 9 at 7:30pm.


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