Interconnected America and China are an uneasy amalgam in Lucy Kirkwood’s 2013 play, which can be both gripping and sluggish.
Taking her storytelling cue from a shot seen ’round the world, British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s 2013 work extrapolates an assessment of Chinese-American relations today from the famous photo of a Chinese man standing up to tanks in the 1989 Tiananmen Square showdown. In Kirkwood’s version, American cub reporter Joe Schofield (Coburn Goss) was one of a handful of photographers to capture the image and smuggle it out of the country without having it confiscated by Chinese forces. Nearly two and a half decades later, in 2012, a rudderless Schofield gets wind that the subject of the photo might improbably be alive; Joe sets off on a transpacific wild goose chase to find his man.
Kirkwood’s central characters are Joe, his longtime Beijing contact Zhang Lin (Norman Yap), and Tessa Kendrick (Eleni Pappageorge), the woman Joe gets romantically involved with; Tessa is, conveniently, a British global marketing researcher, providing an outside perspective in more ways than one. But it’s not always clear in Kirkwood’s twisty, sometimes meandering three hours whether the playwright is more interested in these characters as people or as avatars for their countries.
The dense script seems like it might have been better off a novel, despite the uniformly fine acting on display in Nick Bowling’s Chicago premiere. Even at an occasionally tedious three hours, some of Kirkwood’s ideas get short shrift. But then she finally wraps things up in a not-at-all-neat bow in a breathtaking final image, one that could only be achieved in the visual juxtaposition between stage picture and Mike Tutaj’s expertly designed projections. In a story where the heroes are hiding in plain sight and the enemies are murky market forces, Chimerica’s hybrid beast is all too frighteningly real.
TimeLine Theatre Company. By Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Nick Bowling. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs; one intermission.