Playwright: collective work adapted by Jessica Thebus
At: Steppenwolf Studio Theatre
Phone: (312) 355-1650; $18-$28
Runs through: Feb. 9
by Jonathan Abarbanel
No Place Like Home is an 80-minute montage of impressions, remembrances and first-person stories of home and family, delivered by eight 'speakers' supported by a chorus of nine. Largely an aural piece—although with sprightly staging by adapter and director Jessica Thebus—it's material comes from Steppenwolf actors, board members, interns, subscribers, etc. spanning four generations and seven ethnicities, who volunteered for what Thebus calls 'an experiment in theatrical composition.' The work wisely draws no conclusions about what constitutes home or a family, allowing the audience to make its own connections.
The likelihood of connecting is high, since No Place Like Home covers a broad range of experiences. Something will hit home, perhaps a family dinner table scene, or recollections of a favorite relative, a holiday celebration, a terrible argument, a leave-taking, a death, or the impression of a petty cruelty or an unexpected kindness.
Yet this collective memoir is limited by its sources, who are people with stories no more interesting than yours, mine or anyone else's. One longs for moments of heightened theatricality that seize one's emotions and imagination, lifting both the observer and the work above the commonplace, but they aren't there. There are no notable insights, no elevated language or imagery, no particular drama or comedy to lift No Place Like Home to the stature of elegy. A theater piece rather than a play, it has an overall shape but no complete story or characters with which to identify, no conflict and little darkness. There's nothing bad about commonplace, but it's familiar and safe and never challenges with the unexpected.
No Place Like Home is staged in the gymnasium-like Steppenwolf Studio, which set designer Stephanie Nelson has emptied of all platforms and risers to create a large, flat arena covered by artificial grass and encircled by two rows of chairs. Within the arena, five rectangles of vinyl flooring define houses or homes. As the actors enter and exit the playing space from its four corners, they bring with them chairs, stools, lamps, plants, a lawn flamingo, etc. to assist in the scenes, which also incorporate occasional moments of tumbling and choreography to composer David Pavkovic's music.
The flow is smooth and lively; the company an attractive cross-section of ages and races, among them veteran actors Lance Stuart Baker, Alison Halstead, Jacqueline Williams and Cedric Young, director Kimberly Senior and playwright Anne V. McGravie. There are no lead players in this true ensemble and none stand above the others. All are pleasant and capable but none rise to the heights, nor does the work give them opportunities to do so. No Place Like Home sails along on far too even a keel; a kindly but unexciting voyage.