Theater review by Alex Huntsberger
Will Arbery’s Plano is like a dream unfolding at double speed: a heady brew of theatrical tropes, whip-smart jokes and Catholic theology that goes right to your head. After the widely lauded Off Broadway run of his drama Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Arbery’s profile is on the rise. And while the deeply weird Plano is less conventionally structured, its Chicago premiere is a can’t-miss for adventurous theatergoers.
The plot of Plano is hard to describe in much the same way as the plot of the Bible is: If you try to simply recount the events therein, you sound bonkers. The play concerns three sisters in Dallas. The oldest, Anne (Elizabeth Birnkrant), has a closeted gay husband from Mexico (Chris Acevedo); a plague of slugs has descended on their home. The middle sister, Genevieve (Ashley Neal), gets divorced from her Karl Ove Knausgård–loving husband Steve (Andrew Cutler), only to find that he has split in two and that the other Steve (also Cutler) isn’t eager to go. The deeply religious youngest sister, Isabel (Amanda Fink), suffers from a vague chronic illness and is shacking up with a faceless ghost (Andrew Lund) who might also be God.
Trying to describe Plano by way of comparison is equally tricky. Anton Chekhov is the obvious choice—there are three lonely and frustrated sisters, after all—but David Lynch is a better one, given the characters’ surreal earnestness and the play’s dreamlike air of omnipresent menace. But the play is much funnier than this description might make it seem; the sisters all speak bluntly, sans subtext, almost to the point of ditching theatrical convention all together. (A typical line: “We’ll talk about it later…Okay, it’s later.”)
And then there’s Plano, itself; more so than the actual Texas city—“Dallas’s synthetic ghost —Plano exists as a state of being, a haunted and endless purgatory hovering just out sight. While the action moves forward at a blistering pace, the characters never seem to get anywhere. All of the women, including the girls’ mother (Janice O’Neil), exist in a world of men, up to and including God. It’s a place where memories can easily be mistaken for nightmares.
First Floor Theater Company’s production is part of Steppenwolf Theater Company’s LookOut Series, and director Audrey Francis makes great use of the company’s intimate 1700 Theatre space. Kristen Martino’s gray front-porch set accentuates the play’s acute sense of existential doom, and includes a charmingly practical effect that helps Cutler navigate his dual roles. When the play occasionally bubbles over into a dance number, Micah Figueroa’s hallucinatory choreography and Jason Lynch’s dance-club lighting combine to effectively hellish effect.
The cast is stellar across the board, but Fink is particularly good; her wide-eyed Isabel is perfectly attuned to the internal liturgy of Arbery’s writing. While Plano eschews easy answers—and hard answers, too, for that matter—it leaves you with the kinds of questions that keep you up at night. You might even call them prayers.
First Floor Theater at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Will Arbery. Directed by Audrey Francis. Ensemble cast. Running time: 90min. No intermission.