The Peacock at Jackalope Theatre Company: Theater review

Rising playwright Calamity West raises slippery questions of gender, power and violence in postwar academia.

 (Photograph: Alex Hand)
Photograph: Alex HandThe Peacock at Jackalope Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Alex Hand)
Photograph: Alex HandThe Peacock at Jackalope Theatre Company


A young woman with an artificial leg is the lone female presence in a college writing seminar shortly after the end of World War II. She's only recently the sole woman in the group; as we soon discover in Calamity West's intriguingly nonlinear new play, another female student in the class has recently killed herself. And while at least one of the male writers in the room is a returned soldier suffering what we'd now call post-traumatic stress disorder, all of the men, including the ineffectual instructor, are doing their best to ignore their more recent trauma, while Nan (AJ Ware) is eager to dive deep into it.

It's probably too easy to read something of the personal into the way West, herself a rising young Chicago playwright, depicts an ambitious young woman asserting herself amid a boys' club of writers. The men in the group are deeply uncomfortable with the way Nan employs dark themes and scenes of graphic violence in her stories; when she manages to sneak an undiscovered story by her deceased classmate—whom everyone posthumously agrees was nice, pretty and wholly unimaginative as a writer—into the workshop as her own, Nan wins almost universal praise for, one takes it, finally writing like a girl ought to.

And yet despite West's flair for wordly flourish, the worthy questions of gender and power she alludes to remain murky. That's partly because of her chosen milieu, which often feels too knowingly modern for 1946; it's also due to the tonal rift among the various scenes both in West's script and Marti Lyons's staging.

Four of the play's ten scenes take place in apparently the same session of the writing workshop, in which Nan's male cohort pick apart a story by alpha male Calvin (Tim Martin); alternating scenes flash back over the prior week or so, revealing Nan's back story with Calvin, her possible alliance with classmate William (Andrew Burden Swanson) and the details of the unseen Eleanor's death.

Yet the workshop scenes are played so broadly for laughs, particularly by Nate Wheldon as a cartoonishly alcoholic hack of a wannabe writer and, to a lesser extent, by Jack Miggins as a nebbishy follower, that they throw off the tone of the rest of the play. These two characters, along with Ed Dzialo as their schlubby professor, feel like birds of an entirely different feather from the plumage Ware, Martin and Swanson are displaying. West remains undoubtedly a playwright to watch, but The Peacock isn't her struttingest work to date.