A few years back, in a sleepy hotel bar in Costa Rica, I found myself in one of those late-night conversations in which it felt like my new friend was not telling the whole truth. No doubt the history of this genial, white-haired American emigre was benign, but, still, I remember wondering about his real story, as distinct from the one he was telling me.
The character played by William Petersen in Greg Pierce's "Slowgirl" — the brief, small-scaled, gently paced and modestly affecting summer drama at Steppenwolf Theatre — is intended to be not unlike that guy: a likable man with a past, and, perhaps, a desire to leave something behind. Such characters are not easy to play, but Petersen is not only the kind of bankable name you need to draw people to a dog-days show with such a seemingly soporific title, he is also an actor of striking range. Those who think of him as perennially raging in the belly of some criminal beast will be struck here by Petersen's thoughtfulness and apt reticence in forging Sterling, a quiet former lawyer who has withdrawn into the Costa Rican jungle for reasons that take a while to emerge and who now spends his time listening to the iguanas sharpening their toes on his hot tin roof.
The inciting incident in this 90-minute, two-character play — seen at New York's Lincoln Center in 2012 and directed at the Steppenwolf by Randall Arney — is the sudden arrival from the U.S. of Sterling's 17-year-old niece, Becky (Rae Gray). She's been sent down by her mother after she lands in "some trouble," the nature of which also takes a while to emerge but involves an incident at a recent teenage party gone awry. And thus the playwright Pierce has stuck two wounded souls of different generations together, leaving them to try to connect, to sort each other out and find a way to mutually face the challenges of the present.
This is hardly the most original idea in the dramatic universe, and "Slowgirl" reveals no huge surprises. But although conventionally structured, and a piece that simmers rather than boils throughout, it is an engaging, compassionate and well-written character study. And, as it unpacks itself, you'll likely find yourself touched by how well it charts the loving complexities of families. More interestingly yet, Pierce also touches on how terrible things can happen in our lives at different speeds.
Sometimes, hell arrives in a youthful moment, changing everything forever. Sometimes, the bad is there all along in our professional lives, but we just prefer not to notice.
"Slowgirl" is, to a great extent, about what we do when we've realized the inevitability of life's capriciousness, and if — and then how — we try to set things right. It is also an opportunity to really enjoy Petersen's work: His, truly, is a very generous performance, seemingly crafted to allow young Gray, still a college student, to take the spotlight, which also happens to feel like what his character actually would do.
Gray, a very talented and honest young actress with a raft of credits, is not ideally cast here. She plays her Becky very much as an awkward, deeply troubled teen, still emerging from adolescence. That's part of her picture, for sure. But the script also implies a popular, self-confident, privileged leader whose entire peer-fueled, myopic universe has suddenly collapsed in totem. Under Arney's otherwise clear-eyed direction (without fuss; with the help of designer Takeshi Kata, he makes the tricky, alley-style staging in the Upstairs Theatre work), Gray's characterization more implies this is just one in a likely series of crises in this girl's life, and that reduces the stakes of what just went down back home.
Still, that issue (and one needlessly rushed intimate scene) notwithstanding, Gray paints an empathetic character whose late-in-the-play monologues are truly moving. And as she spills her guts, you can see Petersen listening in the corner, brow furrowed and heart engaged, feeling her pain.
When: Through Aug. 25
Where: Upstairs at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20-$78 at 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye