Strawdog Theatre Company. By Jessica Dickey. Directed by Keira Fromm. With Dave Belden, Stephanie Chavara, Jamie Vann. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Modernist composer Charles Ives serves as the existential mascot of Jessica Dickey's 2013 play, in which he's portrayed both by the playwright and by Jamie Vann, the actor who plays him in Strawdog's intimate production, as kind of a twinkly-eyed champion of doing what you love. Ives addresses us directly at the play's start, turning the usual curtain speech thanking us for silencing electronic devices and unwrapping candy now into a gently amusing mood-setter: "Thank you for kindly tolerating whatever distractions your neighbor causes. You may also now thank your neighbor for tolerating you." And he'll wait until you do.
But Ives exists mostly on the sidelines of the play's center father-daughter tale. He introduces us to John Starr (Dave Belden), a former student of his who's now a professional violinist. John sees music as a philosophy, the central heartbeat of a worthy life.
We also meet John's daughter, Laura (Stephanie Chavara), first as an adult delivering a grilling to us as the coach of a girls' high school basketball team; apparently we did not show much hustle on the court in the game's first half. Laura's toughen-up pep talk continues throughout the piece, intercut with flashback scenes of her clashing with her divorced father as a child and, later, teenager over her chosen pastime and her lack of interest in his. Like John sees music, Laura finds life in sport. But John, whose own father was a jock who was disappointed in his music-loving, sports-eschewing kid, sees Laura's athleticism as an affront. It's no accident one of Ives's works that comes up in the text is "The Things Our Fathers Loved."
Keira Fromm's intimate staging is a fine match for the play, which it's difficult to imagine working at more of a remove. And she evokes nicely tuned performances from her three actors in a piece that requires very specific lines in the "special skills" sections of their résumés: Belden, a member of Chicago Sinfonietta, plays violin throughout, and Chavara performs enough drills onstage to show she knows her way around a court.
But there are elements in Dickey's script, particularly in its timeline, that are unnecessarily confusing; Ives died in 1954, we're told, and Laura was conceived while John studied with him at Juilliard, yet teenage Laura declares herself a fan of the Indigo Girls. So when does all this take place? And John's obstinacy expands to the point of cruelty to his daughter, which begins to strain both sympathy and credulity as the clock winds down toward the final buzzer.