When the Steppenwolf Theatre Company announced its production of "The Motherf***er with the Hat," it sure sounded very much like a reprise of the 2011 Broadway production. The director, ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro, was to be the same. Todd Rosenthal's brilliantly fluid setting was coming from New York. Terence Blanchard's sweet and chilling original music was to be heard again. Granted, the comedian Chris Rock, a wild piece of dramatic Broadway casting if ever there was one, was not coming to Chicago. But there was another famous name in his stead: Jimmy Smits.
But even a few minutes into the Shapiro's Chicago production, it becomes clear that this admirably restless director was not the slightest bit interested in approaching this play, a bold, highly articulate and deceptive compassionate Stephen Adly Guirgis drama about the peaks, valleys, minefields and revelations of addiction in an urban underclass, in the same way.
Where the New York production had featured explosive verbal pyrotechnics delivered with the dial stuck at maximum intensity, the Steppenwolf show is gentler, quieter, less funny, less sexualized and quite poignant. John Ortiz, who plays Jackie, the young Puerto Rican man trying to get all sides of his act together in tough circumstances, is much more vulnerable. Ortiz is really very moving here: I don't know how much Guirgis was thinking of his fellow Labyrinth Theater Company colleague when he first wrote this part, but it clearly fits this superb actor.
Also very moving is Sandra Delgado, who plays his addict-girlfriend Veronica, a woman who comes with the drawbacks of the former state but who wholly embraces the latter. Delgado's big heart shines through all the fights that pepper the hefty first chunk of the play. And when Sandra Marquez, who plays a despairing wife named Victoria, takes stock of her lot and finds it wanting, you feel deeply for her trapped circumstance. But you can see the change most clearly in the performance of Gary Perez, who plays one of Jackie's relatives, a gentle man called Cousin Julio. On Broadway, the character felt mostly like comic relief. Perez imbues this man with a deep sadness, a man who spends a lot of time trying to persuade Jackie to embrace what is right and who suffers as all those who love alcoholics or addicts suffer.
Most of Guirgis' play is composed of two- or three-character scenes. In essence, we're watching two agonized, mutually dependent, up-and-down relationships: the one between Jackie and Veronica, two young people who clearly love each other but are not equipped to consistently treat each other well, and the one between the older duo of Ralph D. (Smits) and Victoria, two characters with a very tenuous grip on the middle-class, and on each other. The overt connection is this: Ralph D., who claims many years of sobriety but is otherwise no choir boy, is Jackie's sponsor.
In part, Guirgis is interested in the moral question of what such a sponsor owes the person being sponsored. Anything beyond an exhortation to stay clean?
There is a great deal else to drink in from Guirgis' drama: on this second viewing, the ever-more intolerable murder rate in Chicago kept, for some reason, popping in my head. One of Guirgis' main points here is that people are usually more than one thing: the violent can also be compassionate, the cruel can be kind. What does one do with that particular truth, especially since it flies in the face of a lot of the dualistic language of the recovery community and the law-enforcement gestalt? Through the authorial mouthpiece of Uncle Julio, Guirgis also is exploring the chasm between what many of us thing of ourselves to be and what we actually are. This is hardly the only play about self-delusion, but it strikes me as an especially acute study of the edges of that state. There are grand self-delusions and there are the small delusions in which we participate every day.
When you see two different productions — and these are different productions — of the same play, there is a danger of wanting something in the middle. So it went for me here, my admiration for these changes notwithstanding.
There are times when it feels like the Steppenwolf show needs more pace — times when you want Delgado and Ortiz to show you the hard edges and the raw anger that characterizes only the fights of lovers. That's also true of Smits. The actor, a performer of great talent and accomplishment, is a fascinating presence here: his huge frame barely seems to fit inside Rosenthal's little rooms and you catch the sense of a man who has played a lot of heroes and role models having the guts to embrace his own mortality. This is also a very generous performance. It is as if the rather reticent Smits was determined to melt into the ensemble, to catch the rhythms and punches of others rather than throwing them out himself. That impulse is understandable when you're a star wanting not to dominate, but there are times when you want Smits, an actor who I think has yet more to give, if he puts all that stuff more firmly aside, to really grab a couple of these scenes by the scruff of their neck as one knows he could.
Indeed, when all the fundamentals are this solid, everyone here could now feel free to let the language, the ideas and pain, really rip.
When: Through March 3
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $20-$86 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye