Playwright: Rajiv Joseph. At: Silk Road Rising, Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington St. Tickets: 312-857-1234 ext. 201 or www.silkroadrising.org; $35. Runs through: May 26
There's nothing like a good mystery to pull in an audience, and Rajiv Joseph definitely delivers one that exposes loads of family secrets in his new one-act drama The Lake Effect.
Now having its rolling world premiere at Silk Road Rising (as part of a co-commission with Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, N.J.), The Lake Effect effectively sets up a situation to reveal what caused an Indian-American family to become so fracturedand how an unlikely outsider became such a trusted friend to the ailing patriarch.
The conflict in The Lake Effect is ramped up right from the start when the African-American bookie Bernard (Mark Smith) barges into an Indian restaurant in Cleveland during a massive snow storm. An estranged son named Vijay (Adam Poss) insists that the place is closed, but Bernard is reluctant to leave. Bernard keeps on revealing personal and surprising family facts about Vijay's parsimonious father (whom Bernard affectionately calls "Vinnie"), which only makes Vijay increasingly incensed and baffled at his exclusion from all of Bernard's surprising revelations.
Even more arguments over inheritance and family loyalty come to the fore when Vijay's grown sister, Priya (Minita Gandhi), arrives from Florida and admits to rifling through the family safe. As Vijay and Priya confront each other over past family tragedies and resentments, they start piecing the clues to find out why their father came to trust and care so much for a seeming stranger like Bernard.
Along with Joseph's great dialogue (including a very poetical visual allusion tying the play's title with guiding spirits from the hereafter), The Lake Effect succeeds thanks to strong performances under the assured guidance of director Timothy Douglas. The production is also aided by set designer Dan Stratton's run-down restaurant set.
Smith in particular stands out as Bernard, showing a range of emotions as a recovering attack victim who finds a sort-of replacement father figure in "Vinnie." So when Bernard is given some information that shatters his impressions, Smith's reaction is palpably heartbreaking.
As the estranged grown sibling duo of Priya and Viay, Gandhi and Poss seethe convincingly with anger and hurt over their perceptions of their father's rejections and betrayals. Though we never learn all the reasons why Vijay became so irreparably estranged from his father, one can make a guess at the fact that he's a bachelor and never mentions a girlfriend or wife.
Although The Lake Effect is full of rancor and bad family blood, there is a glimmer of hope at the end that some healing and forgiveness will take place among the play's three emotionally hurt characters. And that provides a satisfying coda to Joseph's entrancing family mystery play that skillfully grips the audience's attention and curiosity.