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Plumbing depths of bittersweet freedom in 'After'

THEATER REVIEW: "After" at Profiles Theatre ★★½

Chris Jones

September 6, 2012

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Monty, the central character in "After," is fresh out of prison, but he's no convicted felon.

After 17 years of hard time, he has been exonerated of rape by newly available DNA evidence. But his innocence doesn't bring him back his lost time. And in the first scene of this intense drama in its Chicago premiere at the Profiles Theatre, the young, New York-based playwright Chad Beckim lays out the surprises of the world outside: silence, a dizzying array of toothbrushes at the drugstore, the presence of a big window, room to move around, Netflix.

“After,” which premiered in New York just a year ago, essentially charts Monty's first weeks outside.

It's not a polemic about the wrongfully convicted so much as a keenly observed portrait of a man who has been gone and is struggling to right himself in new waters.

In its best moments — and there, truly, are many poignant scenes — one gets a sense of the difficulty not only of adjusting to a changed world but of reconciling anger with the imperative of moving on with life.

At one point, Monty (J. Salome Martinez Jr.) is offered a relatively small amount of compensation for his troubles by the state of New York.

His loving sister Liz (the honest Alice da Cunha) is appalled, but the exhausted Monty at least thinks about taking the money, if only to put an end to his pain. As you watch, you understand.

The director, Matt Hawkins, throws himself into this human drama with enormous amounts of intensity: The actors spend almost all of these 90 minutes glaring at one another as if their lives depended on the fiery theatrical connection.

That's all well and good to a point — after all, Monty is going through some intense experience, and Martinez, an honest and vulnerable performer, certainly lives that reality with potent force. But the overall problem with Hawkins' otherwise decent production is that it doesn't offer much of a counterbalance for these constant confrontations.

To put this issue another way, we need to grasp Monty's traumas, but we also need to feel that we are watching life as it is really lived and it is not lived entirely this way. Some moments, we smile, relax, even throw a few words away. Casually.

Those crucial moments of contrast are what is lacking here in an otherwise earnest staging, and it comes at a cost of veracity.

Some of the scenes are set in the doggy day-care center where Monty ends up working — actually the play gets rather trapped in the pooch boarding house with diminishing returns — which is presumably an attempt by the writing to add some dark wit into the proceedings.

Yet, despite some zesty acting by the quirky and talented young actor Gabriel Ruiz, who tries to lighten the tone, the stares and angst are just relentless here as elsewhere in this production, with similarly diminishing returns.

As a result, it feels like we're watching a series of experiential vistas, not a fulsome picture of a real life under stress and change.

Monty soon acquires himself a neurotic kinda-girlfriend, Susie, played by the hyperenergetic and articulate Stephenie Park, a young woman involved with a gangbanger guy.

Park is quite fun and charming, but you don't buy her character for a single moment; she seems a million miles from the milieu in which this messed-up woman finds herself.

Through all of that, Martinez, who is new to Chicago and a bit young for this role, still takes you on a moving journey that sets you off thinking, in this state of all states, the permanence of the damage done the wrongfully convicted.

You can see throughout where Hawkins, who has cast his entire show with actors of color, was itching to go, a la New York's LABrynth Theater Company. Yet to a large extent, his show needs nothing so much as a few simple, quiet, Chicago-style breaths.

cjones5@tribune.com


When: Through Oct. 14

Where: Profiles Theatre Alley Stage, 4147 N. Broadway

Tickets: $35-$40 at 773-549-1815 and profilestheatre.org