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Photograph: Jeff PinesJoanne Dubach, Thomas Gebbia and Gail Rastorfer in Hickorydickory at Chicago Dramatists

Hickorydickory at Chicago Dramatists | Theater review

Marisa Wegrzyn’s characters hear their lives ticking away in this affecting new work.


There’s an arresting metaphor at the heart of Hickorydickory, one that Wegrzyn makes literal in her foray into magical realism: Each of us is outfitted with a “mortal clock” that counts down the seconds until we’re fated to die. Mortal clocks, it seems, look an awful lot like pocket watches, and in most of us they’re situated in our chests, the chain wrapped tightly around our beating hearts. For an unfortunate few, however, the mortal clock is lodged in the head; these poor souls know exactly how long they have left and can hear every second tick away.

That haunting idea is what winds up Wegrzyn’s play, which won her the Wendy Wasserstein Prize in 2009 and is finally receiving its premiere. The setting is a quaint clock-repair shop somewhere on Chicago’s North Shore run by Jimmy (Gebbia), an umpteenth-generation clocksmith. He lives above the shop with his teenage daughter, Dale (Melvin), and her stepmom, Kate (Rastorfer). Dale sets things in motion when she presents shop apprentice Rowan (Ross) with the stopped pocket watch she’s found, engraved with the name of her absent mother, Cari Lee; Dale asks Rowan to fix the watch, but neither of them knows what they’re in for when Rowan’s tampering leads to the arrival of a 17-year-old girl claiming to be Dale’s mom.

Wegrzyn raises powerful themes here of mortality, responsibility and parental sacrifice. “When you know” how long you have left, says the fiery Cari Lee (Dubach), “you don’t tell the people you love.” To Wegrzyn’s great credit, Hickorydickory never gets mired in message-play muck, nor does it get too caught up in the internal logic of its central metaphor.

Which is not to say the play avoids every pitfall. The phrase “mortal clock” is repeated so often that it starts to sound like gibberish, as when you read a word so many times that it no longer looks like a word. The nearly three-hour play could use some judicious trimming; the “mortal clock” count might be a good place for the playwright to start. And Tutterow’s production, though it features fine performances (particularly from the appealingly honest Gebbia and the absolutely artifice-free Melvin), could delve a little deeper into the human emotions inherent in Wegrzyn’s setup. Still, Hickorydickory’s heartrending climax ought to stop your own clock for at least a few seconds.

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