For the second time this season, a Chicago stage is home to the U.S. premiere of a war allegory by U.K. playwright Zinnie Harris. A Red Orchid's production of Harris's 2005 Solstice, directed by Karen Kessler, proves less frustrating than Tina Landau's fall staging of the scribe's more recent The Wheel, yet Solstice is ultimately only slightly more satisfying.
Where The Wheel had Joan Allen and a couple of child actors traipsing metaphysically through two centuries' worth of real wars, Solstice's conflict is more of a parable: We're on the more downtrodden side of an unnamed city divided by a river and a seemingly minor difference of religion. A tentative but relatively longstanding peace between the two factions, separated by a single bridge, is at risk thanks to escalating acts of retaliatory violence.
Michael (Larry Grimm), a humble, pious and pacifist candlemaker, finds his prayers increasingly ineffective to stem the tide of blood, while his wife, Terese (Kirsten Fitzgerald), grows disillusioned with a God that won't stop the spread of illness she feels within her body but keeps a secret. Their teenage son Adie (Andrew Cutler), left without moral guidance from his distant parents, falls into the rising jingoistic frenzy to tragic result.
Harris's fable works up to a point in illustrating the dead-end inhumanity of treating religious or ethnic conflicts as zero-sum, all-or-nothing affairs. Yet even in Karen Kessler's largely well-acted staging—Fitzgerald is particularly moving as a mother contemplating what her death could mean for her husband and child—things fall apart as the characters' actions begin to feel necessitated by writerly intent rather than persuasive internal motives. Somehow, all of the playwright's meticulously made-up details—religious tenets, environmental conditions, invented cultural slurs—make her world feel less tangible, not more.