As titles for plays go, "Fallow" isn't the best choice, given its dangerously soporific implications. Still, Kenneth Lin's weighty if rather overwritten drama, which premiered in Philadelphia in 2012 and is getting its first Chicago production at the Steep Theatre under the direction of Keira Fromm, starts out in reasonably lively fashion. We meet a mother, played by Kendra Thulin, who has journeyed to California, apparently hoping to have an encounter with those who killed her idealistic, college-age son. We know this because she shares it with her taxi driver, who does not have a meter in his cab but has gravitas and personal complications aplenty.
This mother, whom Thulin approaches with honesty and potency, is not so much in search of answers to the horrific crime that has befallen her child in the whodunit sense; that's already known. It's more a matter of her trying to understand the whys and wherefores and learn what she apparently missed about her boy.
It's hardly the first such dramatic story, but it's an intriguing setup. The story of the young man in question, Aaron (Brendan Meyer), unspools between scenes of his mother's quest to find out precisely what befell this Cornell University dropout who cast his lot among fruit pickers and illegal immigrants. We see him explaining why he's leaving college; we see him off on his adventures out West.
Both the twin narratives, one moving forward and one backward, thus approach the same revelation — what exactly happened and why — from opposite directions. And they both do so with much heavy symbolism, ranging from a Mexican-born cabdriver who has given himself the name Happy (he's well-played by Jose Antonio Garcia) in order to succeed in America, to numerous scenes involving bees, here metaphors for everything from privileged queens to victimized migrant workers.
Lin is exploring the experience of a kid from a privileged background who decides to jettison his handouts and live among those to whom life has dealt very different circumstances. In the best scenes of the play, and many of them are very moving, Lin goes after the sheer impossibility of really doing that in a way that actually works out well for anybody. Similarly, thanks in no small part to Thulin's throat-catching performance, you get a strong sense of how the bereaved often are compelled to search for answers, grasping at anything that conveys understanding. Most particularly, Thulin beautifully catches the way we so often act when in pain. At one moment, we're calm and rational; at others, anger or confusion shoots out of our mouths, sometimes scaring those who are trying to help.
That said, "Fallow" tends to hit some weeds in the second act. Fromm's production is fulsome, creative and honest (and it contains some stellar cameos, including one from Peter Moore and a knockout scene featuring Nick Horst as a wound-tight military guy), but it lacks pace overall, especially deep into the drama. A play with so many bees is tough to stage in such a small theater, and, frankly, you don't really believe their existence here, which makes some of the scenes feel stilted.
And although Meyer starts out deftly, his rambling second act monologue seems to drag him down. As the character becomes more agrarian, so the actor makes everything more and more hesitant and internal, almost to the point that the character disappears inside himself.
The transitions get slower, the music more somber, and you start to crave the same bold tills of dramatic discovery with which this show begins.
When: Through Aug. 17
Where: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $20-22 at 866-811-4111 or steeptheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye