You don't likely know the playwriting duo of Chance Bone and Andrew Burden Swanson — they're mostly a pair of young Chicago actors. But there's enough to "The Casuals," a very intriguing, impressively unpredictable, heartfelt and promisingly complex new drama of secrets — nuclear and otherwise — to merit your attention. And there are moments in director Jonathan Berry's intermittently sweet and chilling production to send a few unseasonal chills down your spine.
This world premiere, staged not by one of Chicago's major institutions but by the small but rising Jackalope Theatre Company in the Department of Cultural Affairs' Storefront Theater in the Loop, is set in 1955. It revolves around one Richard Hughes (Ed Dzialo), whose past fame as a genial World War II radio host (known for rousing the troops with a "Good morning heroes") becomes useful to the military establishment conducting various tests in the Nevada desert. Hughes, a charming but buttoned-up man, is pressed into service interviewing various applicants (or maybe draftees) for some kind of government mission, the nature of which he does not know. (And it's better you not know either.) Suffice to say that the culture of secrecy acts like a mushroom cloud. The play kept putting me in mind of the Pat Tillman story or the Jessica Lynch business; at other moments there are shadings of "The Manchurian Candidate."
But "The Casuals" is mostly a double-pronged family drama that wants to explore such themes as trust, truth telling and the compelling question of whether we need to know the truth, especially when young, about the lives our parents led. One of Richard's interviewees is a man named Les (Brad Smith, whose brief scene is positively riveting). Then time gets scrambled. Les appears to have died — in redacted circumstances. Richard, meanwhile, has befriended Les' widow (Somer Benson) and her young boy Tim (played by the very moving Sam Kurzydlo, a student at Northside College Prep). Tim, a 12-year-old with an aching heart, has been who has lost his father to the war and has been told by his mother and his Nevada neighborhood pal Richard that his dad died a hero's death. But did he? And does such a boy always deserve to be told the truth?
Bone and Swanson — nice ring, that — combine Richard's growing but uneasy relationship with that mother and son to something parallel going on in his own family. Early in the play, Richard's nephew, Tom (the nicely complicated Morgan Maher) arrives unexpectedly with a fiancee in tow (Jessica, played by Ellie Reed). The angry Tom, we quickly come to realize, doesn't want to talk about his dead father, Richard's brother, who also seems to have died in the war as a hero. Or so Richard has said.
So what did Richard tell his own nephew when he was young? Does honor matter as much as truth? Is this Richard some kind of benign deceiver? A compassionate soul? Better than that? Much worse?
These are all quite compelling dramatic questions very much in the old-fashioned Arthur Miller style. Chance and Swanson go a long way in allowing the very decent and understated Richard to carry the metaphoric burdens their drama wants him to hold. Berry's production starts slowly and broadly, but it really kicks into gear during a blistering scene between Smith and Dzialo, and then again in a truly lovely exchange between Benson and Kurzydlo that acts as the play's emotional center.
There are some very smart devices here: long-held secrets, an ambivalent hero with shades of Miller's Joe Keller, a kid who just wants to be able to trust his elders, a widow looking for love, and so on. The writers also grab hold of some humor, sending their oblivious characters off into the desert to watch the nuclear testing from what they are convinced is a safe distance of, oh, eight miles. They take the kid and all. It's true that the structure of this new Chicago play has its schematic elements and, for sure, an overall well-made familiarity. And there's room for more pace and bite in Berry's production. But the overall storytelling is fresh, honest and poignant enough, and Berry's work sufficiently enveloping, that "The Casuals" makes you feel like life is anything but.
When: Through July 28
Where: Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $15 at 773-340-2543 or jackalopetheatre.org/ticketsCopyright © 2015, RedEye