Playwright: David Rabe. At: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 773-283-7071; www.thegifttheatre.org; $20-$35. Runs through: Nov. 22
Good for Otto is a weighty, extremely complex, compelling and linguistically rich world premiere with challenges and opportunities aplenty for the director and cast. Those challenges are met with astonishing grace and power by 15 actors guided by Gift Theatre co-founder Michael Patrick Thornton. Good for Otto is Chicago Theater at its finest.
Otto, a hamster, is the dearest stable relationship in the limited social firmament of Timothy ( John Kelly Connolly ), a developmentally-challenged man. Timothy is under the care of Evangeline Ryder ( Lynda Newton ) and Dr. Robert Michaels ( John Gawlik ), who operate a mental health clinic in semi-rural Massachusetts. Ryder is not given as much attention as Dr. Michaels, but then she's not constantly visited by a spirit intervening in her life and clinical practice, as he is: his Mom ( Brittany Burch )perpetually young and beautifulwho committed suicide when he was nine.
Indeed, Good for Otto is matrilineal: Many main characters share mother problems generally involving abandonment ( real or imagined ) through divorce, death or otherwise. Only working-class Jimmy ( Paul D'Addario ) has a father-related issue and Jimmy is an odd man out. He's not a clinic patient and, therefore, may be a character author David Rabe could lose without damaging his play.
Still, Jimmy is sympathetic no matter how briefly seen, part of the brilliance of esteemed playwright Rabe. He creates empathy quickly and seemingly easily so we never lose interest in the characters over the nearly three-hour ( with intermission ) playing time. Among those we meet are a bright self-destructive pre-adolescent girl ( a charismatic, edgy performance by Caroline Heffernan ), her concerned but hard-pressed foster mother ( Darci Narlep ), a semi-delusional young gay man ( Jay Worthington ), a retiree who feels somehow incomplete ( funny, nuanced work by Rob Riley ) and a hoarder who can't abandon his storage boxes ( piano-playing Kenny Mihlfried ). All of them are achingly vulnerable nearly to the point of tears.
Good for Otto is a work of poetic realism employing dreams, visions, imaginings, interior monolog and direct narration to the audience as well as dialog to achieve its considerable effects in a dark-sided exploration of depression, loss and absence of self-esteem which can drive one to the edge. Most characters express themselves in a set piece or spoken aria in Rabe's rich text.
The play is episodic in structure. Patients' stories intermingle but never interact, with some in bolder relief than others. Also, it dwindles down without a definitive end, so Rabe tacks on a think-positive coda. These are points Rabe might consider addressing down the road. Meanwhile, he more than fills the stage with a work of perception and compassion. The Gift production looks good, too, cleverly using an alley stage and platforms to expand the tiny space ( Courtney O'Neill, scenic designer ).