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Photograph: Tom McGrathCHRISTIAN BALEFUL Freed, right, tries to cheer up DiCristofano.



Chicago playwright Colburn is clearly on the rise: Hesperia is the second of three of his plays to which Right Brain Project is devoting 2010, InFusion Theatre Company will debut another of his works this fall, and he’s working on a commission from Writers’ Theatre. On first encounter here, we find the writer’s promise apparent. He takes a movie-of-the-week-sounding premise—a former porn star returns to small-town Midwest and finds happiness in the church and a youth-minister fiancé, only to have her past follow her home—and makes it both surprising and sympathetic.

After a stint in L.A. doing porn with her childhood sweetheart Ian (Billy Fenderson), Claudia (Natalie DiCristofano) has moved (close to) home and found love with Trick (Nick Freed). For reasons that remain unknown to us, she sends Ian a wedding invitation but is taken aback when he shows up—and even more so when he wants to stay.

There are some hitches in Colburn’s script; weeks seem to go by between Ian’s arrival for the wedding and the actual event, for instance, and Colburn’s secondary characters (played by Katy Albert and teen actor Danny Mulae) are devices rather than people. But the nuance and lack of judgment he brings to subjects such as born-again Christianity and his deft way with dialogue are impressive (“I just want you to know your lifestyle doesn’t bother me,” says the well-meaning Trick. “Likewise,” replies Ian). While Robbel’s direction is physically clunky (featuring the most awkward scene transitions in recent memory), he elicits terrifically honest work from his leads. Freed stands out as the youth minister whose outward confidence masks inner complexity.

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