Three cheers for 'Oohrah!' at Garage Rep, puzzled silence for 'He Who'

"Oohrah!" by LiveWire Chicago

The dilemmas in "Oohrah!," playwright Bekah Brunstetter's affectionately observed domestic drama about a lower middle-class family coping with the return of Dad from military service in Iraq, would not be hard to predict. The former soldier must adapt to a quieter life where trips to Home Depot replaces managing supply convoys in the desert. His wife must press her long-on-hold desire for a lovely home, even though the couple's daughter prefers her father's fatigues to the dress of a mock debutante. And like many families at their point in life, this struggling trio is also dealing with an elderly relative in declining health (moving played by Peter Esposito) and a wild-card sister (Calliope Porter) who sleeps in their home, and sleeps around on her boyfriend, a grown man who never really grew up.

This is, in many aspects a well-made play, replete with a mysterious outsider in a character named Chip (Ian R. Tranberg), whom that errant sister brings into this Fayetteville, N.C., homestead, and who may be something other than the gung-ho Marine he seems. But there are far few good plays about this particular demographic, about ordinary American life as it lived in general, and the ubiquity of these problems (the play is set in 2007) does not diminish their weight.

When it was first produced in New York in 2009, "Oohrah!" was mostly dismissed as an uneasy piece of Southern dramedy. I didn't see that first production at the Atlantic Theater, but there is nothing campy or overwrought about director Brad Akin's production for LiveWire Chicago, which features exceptionally honest acting from Josh Odor and Melissa Engle as the married couple at the core of the piece, as well as a quirky and generally dead-on turn from Joel Ewing as Christopher, one of those decent guys who can't be quite the guy their girlfriend thinks she needs. As that girlfriend, Porter offers a nicely distracted and insecure character, avoiding the easy comedic traps of the loser-sister by veiling everything with a real sadness.

There are some clunks in the play; at one point in the second act, the teenage daughter (played by Madeline Long) gets left behind with weird Chip, which is a choice more about making a scene possible that reflected actual decisions that would get made in such a moment. Some of the dark comedy involving tragically spilled chips and dip is a bit forced. But those are minor problems, really. "Oohrah!" (the title references a Marine battle-cry) is quite a moving show, which Akin gives a rock-solid, simple, Chicago-style production, which is to say he finds that actors who understand these characters, treat their problems with respect and refuse to patronize them for the amusement of theatrical sophisticates. That is exactly what this script needs.

"He Who" by Theatre Zarko 

In the program for MichaelMontenegro'simpenetrable new work, "He Who," reference is made to a story about mothers, "who become pregnant with ideas." Yet in publicity materials, the piece is described thus: "Within an old man's dying few seconds, he experiences the distorted and painful dreams of his most influential acts and their consequences."

So which was it? Mothers? A dying old man? All of the above? Frankly, after 70 minutes with this piece, not only was it difficult to tell, it was impossible to care. There is a big puppet in the middle of the space, a kind of giant baby, or maybe an old man, who demands to be fed and who urinates from time to time, with the help of a water bottle. He is surrounded by a group of women, apparently mothers, who are in a state of duress and are somewhat tyrannized by this unpleasant critter. Montenegro has a formidable track record as an artist — so much of his earlier work has been so beautiful — and he is, of course, under no obligation to be literal or linear. But, to paraphrase a commandment uttered by the late playwright Jerome Lawrence, thou shalt not take the money of thy audience without letting them know what goeth on.

"He Who," which says it all, is a half-baked mess, performed without evident regard for truth or empathy, and there is no discernible redemptive beauty.

"Oohrah!" and "He Who" run in rotating repertory with "Hit the Wall" (previously reviewed; go to chicagotribune/theaterloop). Through April 8 in the Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted St.; $20 per play, $45 for festival pass; 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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