Playwright: Jason Wells. At: Theater Wit at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; www.theaterwit.org; $18-$36. Runs through: April 1
"This is how it starts!" shouts the mercenary rebel with an automatic pistol in each hand and three fallen bodies scattered throughout the room. We don't hear this rallying cry until late in the show, however, because Jason Wells wants to make sure we understand every step leading to the shootout, and just maybe the armed overthrow of a nation's government.
As with Wells' earlier plays, our plot is that of an action-thriller encumbered by the messy details the movies conveniently skip: a self-styled whistleblower named Carlton Berg has been jailed in the two-street town of Lodus, Missouri. Occupying the next cell is loud-mouthed single mom Tanya, and on guard is Shonda, a clerk who police chief Swenson presses to duty as prison matron. These humble citizens are uniformly absorbed in their own petty concerns and scornful of Carlton's conspiracy-theorist claimsuntil the arrival of federal investigators displaying Gestapo-like tactics gradually inspire them to question the wisdom of those in authority.
Although it might be cheating for Wells to hint at an offstage United States regulated by martial law, the paranoia arising from these conditions recalls that following the 2001 bombing of the Trade Center, with opportunists taking advantage of that disaster's aftermath to seize power, only to be foiled at the grassroots level by precisely the kind of stubbornly myopic average-Joe-and-Jane skepticism frustrating visionaries and hucksters alike. Not for nothing has Wells selected Missouriwhose state motto is "Show Me"as the setting for his parable.
Kate Buddeke takes on the catalytic role of the salty-talking Tanya, originated by Jennifer Engstrom in the 2010 First Look premiere, flanked by Will Zahrn as the avuncular sheriff, Tom Hickey as the weasely Fed and Brian King as the latter's jealous second-in-command, reprising their First Look roles. If newcomers Kevin Stark and Lucy Sandy rendered the fugitive Carlton and bewildered Shonda a trifle nebulous on this Theatre Wit production's opening night, that's forgivable when your scenario mandates high-speed sneaks, juggles, overlapping dialogue and the brandishing of lethal weapons. Still, before dismissing Wells as a purveyor of cynical slapstick satires dependent on directors and fight choreographers for their successin this case, Kimberly Senior and Chris Rickettnaysayers might recall that the career of Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts was launched on just such microcosmic fables as this.