Playwright: Greg Pierce. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org; $20-$78. Runs through: Sept. 1
Just because the law doesn't find you guilty doesn't mean you're innocent in Greg Pierce's deceptively spartan tango for two. Years earlier, Sterling's law partner went to jail for embezzlement, while Sterling was acquitted. He now lives deep in the Costa Rican jungle, but is about to be visited by his teenage niece, Becky, whose New England parents have sent her abroad for rest and recovery during an ongoing police investigation of her culpability in an incident occurring at a party just weeks previous.
This isn't a police procedural, and so the question of who did and didn't do what is not as important as its effect on those forced to keep asking it. With solitude and meditation (even his sexual needs are met wordlessly), Sterling has acclimated to parrots on his porch, iguanas on his roof and the occasional venomous snake. Becky, by contrast, is a thoroughly socialized creature, anthropomorphizing the indigenous beasts as if they were Disneyland animatrons, and sharing her observations in bursts of verbosity designed to bury the truth under layers of persiflage. As she gradually becomes attuned to the spirituality her astigmatic uncle embraces, Sterling confronts the prospect of a disciple bent on joining him in his voluntary exile.
The fact is, hiding is hard work. You can flee your pursuers and swaddle yourself in illusions of primal amorality, but the mere presence of an ear, sympathetic or not, awakens an irresistible impulse to confessand in confessing, justify the reasons for your flight. Sterling and Becky both claim to want refuge from a judgmental worldindeed, their initial conversation is peppered with mutual assurances that their secrets are their own to keep. Don't they know that the surest route to uncomfortable self-examination is to put together two fugitives implementing widely diverse tactics to evade it?
Chicago-trained actors living on the West Coast have made a practice of introducing smart home-town talents to their Hollywood colleagues. The recipient, this time, of former Remains and current Steppenwolf company member William Petersen's sponsorship is Rae Gray, whose portrayals of prematurely streetwise waifs has earned critical praise belying her youth. When this production transfers to Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse next year, look for its audience to be as riveted as those in Chicago by Pierce's 90 minutes of intergenerational repartee, swapped by Petersen and Gray within a tropical ambience accurate to the last animal cry, honed to machete precision under Randall Arney's direction. Better yet, see it here, now.