Two Mile Hollow
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Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler tweaks the privileged-Caucasian-family-secrets genre in this biting satire.
The opening image of Leah Nanako Winkler’s Two Mile Hollow is a sad white woman sitting on her porch swing, sadly clutching a pillow with an air of, oh what’s the word, let’s just go with “sadness.” Now, if you’re the kind of person who reads that sentence and promptly throws your phone across the room then hold on a second, because, surprisingly, Two Mile Hollow is exactly the show for you.
It is, in fact, a raucous, shoot-the-prisoners parody of exactly the kind of play that begins with a sad white woman, expands to include her sad white family, and exhaustively explores all the various shades of white, wealthy sadness. It’s hilarious, biting, and an incredibly astute dissection of the place where whiteness, privilege and wealthiness all blur together into an awful, cawing morass. (Let’s call this place “the GOOP horizon.”) Directed with equal parts rigor and verve by Hutch Pimentel, First Floor Theater’s production is Two Mile Hollow’s world premiere—and it could not have come at a better, more urgent time. Chicago is lucky to have it.
And lest you worry that this “parody” of white family dramas undercut its purpose by only putting white bodies on stage, well, that worry is anticipated and overcome. It’s actually the play’s central conceit, as all the members of the family in question, the Donnellys, are played by actors of color. (You can tell they’re white because of their blond wigs, as well as, you know, the sense of wounded entitlement that oozes from their very pores.)
The sad white woman with whom the play begins is Mary Donnelly (Deanna Myers, fantastic), the neurotic daughter of Blythe (Jazmin Corona), whose husband, Derek, a famous actor, died ten years prior. Mary is Blythe’s daughter from her first marriage, while her brothers, the sad, alcoholic, unemployable Joshua (Jose Nateras), and the dashing Hollywood actor Christopher (Kai Ealy), were Derek’s children from his first marriage. Technically, this makes them her step-brothers, which, in regards to Christopher, at least, leads exactly where you think it would.
The family has gathered to clean out the family home and sell it, but of course they are beset on all sides by all-caps DRAMA of their own making, which the cast digs into with cynical glee. (Set designer Arnel Sancianco builds a multi-level labyrinth that evokes the kind of tasteful shabbiness only the truly well-off can really achieve. The only problem is a family dining room—in which many a climactic scene is set—so far upstage that scenes get a bit lost.)
Thrust into all this madness is Charlotte (the wonderful Aurora Adachi-Winter), Christopher’s ambitious assistant and the instantaneous apple of Joshua’s eye. She is also the story’s lone nonwhite character, and therefore its most recognizably human. Don’t worry, though, she gets some silliness as well, including a surprise Next to Normal–style musical number as well an impromptu piece of feminist performance art with Mary. She even gets to call out a certain member of the Chicago theater press by name in a move that should come complete with that Michael Jackson eating popcorn gif.
In the play’s opening scenes, the question on an audience member’s mind might be how the show is going to be able to sustain its momentum. The humor is quite broad at times—very funny, yes, but broad nonetheless—to the point it would seem hard to keep up for an entire hour and fifty minutes. And that type of humor would be unsustainable, which is why Winkler’s play smartly moves away from it, latching onto Charlotte’s saner POV and evolving into a slightly (slightly) more down-to-earth social satire.
Charlotte is horrified by the Donnellys’ distinctive mix of privilege and self-pity, a cocktail that nonetheless holds a certain allure. And when Joshua punctures her dreams that her position with Christopher will help her climb the Hollywood ladder (“Once you’re introduced to people as ‘the help,’ that’s all you’ll ever be to them”), Charlotte has to quickly reassess her life choices. This is not so easy a task to accomplish when surrounded by Chekhov’s inbred, mutant offspring—a connection the play makes quite explicit by having characters quote The Seagull and then start sqwawking like the depraved scavengers that those seagulls actually are. They’re not metaphors. They’re pests.
First Floor Theater at the Den Theatre. By Leah Nanako Winkler. Directed by Hutch Pimentel. With Aurora Adachi-Winter, Jazmin Corona, Kai Ealy, Deanna Myers, Jose Nateras. Running time: 1hr 50mins; no intermission.