Playwright: Margaret Lewis
At: Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield
Phone: ( 773 ) 883-8830; $18-$22
Runs through: April 1
As I was heading in to see Fellow Travellers, a world-premiere play by Evanston playwright Margaret Lewis, the ticket taker felt sorry for me because I was alone. 'But you'll be so engrossed, you won't even notice!' she called after me.
Whatever. But she was right. Fellow Travellers is that rare evening of theater that transports its audience through deft storytelling; sharp characterization; and crisp, clean direction and production values. Its two hours zip by; the people on stage become real human beings you care about and, while the story's mysteries are viewable from a mile off, there's still a great deal of dramatic tension in seeing how they will be revealed and resolved.
Fellow Travellers is the story of two friends coming of artistic age during Hitler's rise to power. Max is the more conventional of the two painters and his work is mannered and marked by technical proficiency. Karl paints with passion, and his art is as much about the act of creation as it is about the end result. It's easy to see how the two friends are marching toward a great divide as Hitler becomes a more menacing presence in Germany: Max usurps Karl's favored student role as his kind of art becomes more in favor and Karl's becomes what the Nazis refer to as 'degenerate.' As the tension rises, so does the stake each man has in his art and his future, especially when the act of creation can become criminal, the punishment for which is 'relocation.' As I said, how this story plays out is predictable from the start, but it's fascinating to watch how the pair comes to its ultimate scene of betrayal and how that leads to the play's second story, which revolves around Karl as an old man, living in California in the 1970s, an escapee from Nazi Germany but unable to paint and terrified as Alzheimer's begins taking its toll. Into his life comes a middle-aged German woman who is looking for the father she thought had died during the war. Of course, her father is Karl. But is Karl really Karl, especially when the art he produced after defecting to the U.S. in the 1940s was so markedly different from his German work? It's pretty easy to see the plot twists here.
But what makes Fellow Travelers work is the humanity that playwright Lewis injects into her characters. Aided by strong performances across the board, these are simply people whom you care about, replete with universal strengths and weaknesses. David M. Schmitz's direction is on target: each scene builds on the last and all are executed with the kind of artful precision that keeps everything fluid.
The play's ending, and the moral ambiguities it's certain to leave you with, is one reason you will be thinking about Fellow Travellers long after you've left the theater.