Ages of Man @ Theater Above the Law

3 Stars out of 4

Aside from the ubiquitous school play of Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s works have been relegated to library shelves of late.  His world view is of another time—so twentieth century back when things were looking up for mom and apple pie.  But he was a globalist before it was fashionable (and now unfashionable) and his work still holds moving and important lessons about community and humanity, about how imperfect people manage to cobble together lives of meaning and beauty despite the  obvious foibles and tragedies which are the stuff of living.

Newly opened storefront company Theatre Above The Law kicked off its second season with artistic director Tony Lawry re-examining  three of Wilder’s rarely performed one acts  from The Ages of Man collection.  Written in 1960, as America moved out of idyllic post war prosperity and entered an era of turmoil and social upheaval, the plays are intimate gems of moments: Infancy is a humorous look at how babies view the world , vis a vis the grownups who are clearly overwhelmed by the responsibility, Childhood is a dark look at the macabre games of childhood and how children are brave enough to act out the very things they fear the most, and finally Rivers Under the Earth is a flickering look at mortality and how life never turns out the way we expect.

In the first piece Jeremy Shaye as Officer Avonzino transports us to a playground in New York City in a bygone era, where many mothers of babies still stroller their own to the park.  This is pre nanny army.  David Harley as Tommy and David Cameli as Moe play the babies who hilariously interpret and attempt to make sense of the grown up world as Gracie Brazeal and Bailey Castle misinterpret and attempt to pacify their obstreperous charges. There are many meme worthy lines in this one act: I don’t want to be a man, it’s toooooo hard, and Nobody ever taught me anything.  And, as Avonzino notes, those babies are up to something. 

Next  we have the precocious young actors Lena Valenti, Madison Murphy and Bryce Ferral play siblings obsessed with games that kill off their parents and set newly emancipated children loose in the world, whilst Dad just wants to golf and mom just wants everyone to get along.  Once again, the generations speak different languages and want radically diverging impossible things from each other.  Love overshadows all, but it is clear that the kids want something the parents can’t provide, and the parents are aching for a relationship that will never be. Noteworthy takeaway lines from this one: Is there any such thing as a good father or mother?;Children don’t like to be treated as Children. 

Truth.

And finally the most subtle and deep play of all:in the final selection,  Mom, played by chameleon Bailey Castle, wants her ever attentive son Tom, rendered  the now very responsible adult by David Hartley, to take her out to the Point at the lake. When she was young and came to the Point, she had dreams and talents.  They are subsumed by raising her children and the career of her promising husband, played by the now senatorial David Cameli.  Her children, now grown, are truly horrid to one another the way only siblings can be, and her successful husband is oblivious to her sacrifices.   In this universe, men dream and achieve and smoke their pipes, and women dream and get sidetracked and have to be begged to show their latent talents.  In many ways, Wilder in the Ages of Man plays is sappy and retro, but none of the issues faced by these characters have truly changed since when these plays were first performed.  Does that make Wilder’s plays universal, or is it an indictment of how slowly culture changes?

The ensemble who brings these three one acts to life is deeply sincere and enormously talented, creating a multitude of fully believeable characters you want to spend more time with.The barebones staging lets the words come alive, and allows the audience to fill in the picture.  In the tiny black box space, these quiet looks into the human heart resonate deeply no matter what Age you are living in.

You don’t have much time to see this show, and be sure to book tickets ahead: the tiny Theatre Above the Law commonly sells out.Infancy, Childhood and the Rivers Under the Earth plays weekends through October 8th at McKaw Arts Center at 1439 West Jarvis in Chicago.  For tickets and information go to http://www.theatreatl.org/shows/  or call 773-655-7197