Playwright: Sarah Gubbins. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org; $20. Runs through: March 18
Sarah Gubbins' fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life is very much a play for today's LGBT youth. As this world premiere for Steppenwolf for Young Adults shows, things may be getting better, but they're still a long way off from where they should be.
Gubbins sets fml (textspeak for "fuck my life") in the western Chicago suburb of La Grange, where out student Jo (Fiona Roberts) goes to a Catholic high school that she calls "St. Paul, the Unbearable."
Jo has an accepting family, including college dropout brother Reed (Bradley Grant Smith). And Jo is friends with the only other openly gay student at school, Mickey (Ian Daniel McLaren), who encourages her talents to no end. Yet Jo still feels isolated and detached, retreating to her sketchbook and trying to master her free throwing basketball skills.
Into Jo's life enter two different women who shake things up. There's Jo's chemistry lab partner, Emma (Zoe Levin), who soon befriends her largely for study purposes. And then there's the new English teacher, Ms. Delaney (Lily Mojekwu), who changes the curriculum around to teach Carson McCullers' novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
Not only does McCullers' novel speak to Jo and her alienation; she soon develops a fascination for Ms. Delaney once Mickey points out that she's likely a lesbian. Jo's budding friendship with Emma is also called into question by her possessive jock boyfriend, Tyler, whom we only hear in the form of projected text messages.
In fml, Gubbins depicts a story-within-a story world that, while more gay-tolerant, still isn't safe for out high schools students to be who they are in a safe space. Gubbins also explores how things are for straight allies, who themselves might be negotiating how much acceptance and support they can show without being judged too much by their peers.
I wish I could have seen fml in a crowd of high school students, since the crowd at the opening public performance took a while to warm to the play and its articulate and entertaining characters. I guess it could be because Robert is fairly low-key in depicting Jo, which is in no way out of place in portraying a teenager who is defensively inward with her expression of feelings (perhaps an added sense of urgency would have helped.)
Director Joanie Schultz otherwise presents a solid staging of fml that is greatly enhanced by the projected graphic design of Mike Tutaj above Chelsea Warren's rotatable sets that shifts scenes from Jo's house to her high school.
What's great about fml is that it brings a gay youth character to the forefront. Also, it serves as good reminder that we must not fail in making schools a safe place for all students.