Playwright: Mat Smart. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Phone: 312-335-1650; $15-$20. Runs through: March 13
When Steppenwolf Theatre typically chooses work for its Steppenwolf for Young Audiences presentations, the shows are mostly literary adaptations with ties to school curriculums. But Steppenwolf bucks the trend with Samuel J. and K., a new play by Naperville playwright Mat Smart.
Now Samuel J. and K. may not have literary brand name-recognition, as evidenced by the half-empty house at the public press performance. But once word gets out about the emotional richness and familial insight of Smart's two-character drama, don't be surprised if all those reasonably priced weekend tickets to Samuel J. and K. become scarce.
Samuel J. and K. focuses on grown Naperville brothers, one black and one white, who share the same first name. Samuel J. (whose middle name is Jackson) surprises his adopted brother, Samuel K. (his middle name is Kennedy), with a college graduation gift of a trip to Cameroon so he can get in touch with his roots.
Yet Samuel K. is reluctant to return to the country of his birth. Sure enough, when both Samuels get to Cameroon, an almost irreparable rift develops between the two over questions of identity, brotherhood and responsibility.
Smart's up-to-the-minute modern drama may seem a tad formulaic as his characters' revelations nearly resolve toward the ending, but Smart provides great scenarios for actors and a great director to sink their teeth into.
That's exactly what's on evidence in director Ron OJ Parson's physically energetic production, which features one-on-one basketball and some knock-about physical fights (a great credit to fight director David Chrzanowski). Parson also nails the quieter moments.
Comparing performances, things seem to be weighed in the favor of Cliff Chamberlain as college-dropout Samuel J. Chamberlain definitely runs with the impulsive and frequently goof-ball characterization, which unfortunately outshines Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., as Samuel K.
But then Roberson portrays the more responsible brother whose educational and career path goals are clearly is in the better graces with their unseen off-stage mother. Roberson plays his emotional cards very close to his chest, which gives his character of Samuel K. a bit of an expressive short shrift until the conciliatory scenes in Act II.
Since Samuel J. and K. has to share the same stage with another Steppenwolf show, Sex with Strangers, the production isn't much to look at. But the performances enliven the thoughtful and heartfelt material, so it's all good.
By featuring Samuel J. and K. as a Young Adults show, Steppenwolf skillfully shows young audiences that theater can be as current and localized as you like. But more importantly, Steppenwolf is giving a welcome platform to a local playwright who appears to have plenty of vital and emotionally important things to say.