Playwright: Brett Neveu. At: A Red Orchid Theater, 1531 N. Wells St. Tickets: 312-943-8722; www.aredorchidtheatre.org; $30-$35. Runs through: Dec. 13
An early Brett Neveu play proposes a childhood game among siblings that evolves over time into ritualistic blood sport. The source of the game played by the McKee family, however, lies in "contracts"pacts couched in legal precedent and initially introduced to deal with juvenile infractions, but now utilized by both generations to negotiate far more serious matters.
Customs like this do not arise by accident. On this hectic Thanksgiving day, as the clan prepares to celebrate the holiday with neighbors, theater-professor Jim and psychiatrist Melissa recall youthful experiences of unexpected horrortheir love-at-first-sight moment at a school show where an actor suffered a fatal hemorrhage in mid-speech, their first coupling at a party after hearing accounts of war atrocitiesleading them to seek control of their social environment through adopting the orderliness of court procedure. This obsession also spurs them to pepper their conversations with carefully footnoted quotations from their respective fields of studya habit shared by their Earth science-major son Desmond, who engages in verbal duels, armed with Thoreau, Whitman and the Transcendentalists, against his father's arsenal of Western dramatists up to and including Edward Albee and Tracy Letts.
Even without this pedantry alerting the most clueless audience member to the egghead testimonials being called off the bench, we detect hints of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and August: Osage County, not to mention innumerable other classic family dramas. Just watching how these undeniably accomplished, but piteously insecure, individuals function under stress would be interesting enough, but since, in a play, something must happen, pregnant daughter Raniaominously quiet for someone surrounded by such noisy kinwitnesses a suicide at the T-day festivities and vows to fight the destruction lurking always near the innocent.
This Red Orchid production features a dream-team ensemble helmed by Shade Murray. Michael Shannonalmost unrecognizable in his middle-aged-academic dragdelivers a homecoming performance in full eye-rolling ranting-in-tongues mode. He is flanked by Kirsten Fitzgerald's serene Melissa, Ryan Bourque's scrappy Desmond and Charlotte Mae Ellison's laconic Rania. The plot ( which mandates smashed crockery only 20 minutes after curtain ) hurtles along at volatile pace to a Big Reveal leaving us uncertain of its connection with the John Bunyan allegory referenced in the title, or whether the McKee clan is simply making it up as they go, for that matter, but by then we have become sufficiently aware of the evils that beset this temporal world to wish these pilgrims, flawed as they are, whatever safety we can grant them on their precarious spiritual journey toward a true peace.