“Support Group for Men” for All Humans @ Goodman Theatre

3.5 stars out of 4

I don’t know if the rituals and conversations of Support Group for Men, now in its World Premiere at the Goodman Theatre, reflect what would take place if this group existed beyond the confines of the stage, but based on experience with similar rituals in a few progressive workplaces they ring true—with a little more grunting and noise, and fake names. But, in a summer of division and incivility, when fuses are short, Ellen Fairey’s play offers a gentle reminder that listening to people speak their piece without interruption is a good practice. Not only the characters, but the audience as well, may be tempted to interject a comment or response before the talking stick (yes, it is that kind of a support group) is relinquished, but, if you wait, good intentions often emerge from inchoate and sometimes offensive streams of words as the eponymous men try to grapple with shifting gender roles, relationships and aging. Ellen Fairey’s Support Group for Men is an entertaining summer sitcom that delves just deeply enough under the surface of big issues. The stellar cast keep their characters grounded while playing the physical and verbal humor to the hilt, and director Kimberly Senior knows how to keep the action full-throttle, and exactly when to apply the brakes.

The setting is Brian’s walkup apartment on the border of Boystown and Wrigleyville and it’s Thursday night, when Brian’s support group for men meets to discuss their lives and their dilemmas. As the talking stick is passed from one to another, the audience is introduced to the rules and rituals of the group, and the men who form it. Brian’s life is going suspiciously well—he’s the oldest employee of the Apple Store and has a much younger and attentive girlfriend. Delano’s relationship with his wife has taken a turn he cannot understand. Roger is struggling with what appears to be a gnawing existential and identity crisis and lashing out at everyone else to compensate. The newest member of the group is Kevin, a young, salsa-dancing, fact-gleaning Apple Store co-worker who can’t help reminding the older members of the group of their age as he bounces from one perch to another, though he is genuinely appreciative of the community that the group offers. Outside the apartment, alcohol fueled encounters occasionally draw attention from the group and the police, who arrive to look into one particularly heated event. A surprise visitor shakes up the not-so-peaceful gathering even more. The intersections become more convoluted and the talking stick is put aside for more unstructured communication.

Director Kimberly Senior has a way with characters, and her blocking reinforces the unique ways each character occupies the space, while also ensuring the space, about three times the size of the apartment it represents, is filled. What might become a static, talky play interrupted by moments of action becomes a dynamic and unpredictable outing. Every detail is attended to; just pan over the characters as they take a moment for meditation or savor the rosé that Brian’s girlfriend has provided. Of course, she started with the perfect cast. All Chicago stalwarts, each actor knows how to live in his or her role. As Brian, Ryan Kitley strikes the right balance between aging Wrigleyville bro and Robert Bly, with a generosity and bonhomie that both masks and staves off his own fear and loneliness. Anthony Irons plays Delano, the only married man, the only Black man and the only suburbanite in the group, with a buttoned-down ease punctuated by occasional existential doubt. Tommy Rivera-Vega plays Kevin with a guileless and bounding energy, likable even as he throws ideological curveballs at his new-found role models. Representing blue-collar Chicago, Keith Kupferer’s Roger is struggling with the new definitions of gender identity, as he deals with a different identity crisis. It is Roger who most fully captures the dilemmas of the middle-aged men at the center of the play, and who ultimately is most willing to confront them. Kupferer’s portrayal is blustery and truculent, allowing Roger’s intelligence and understanding to slowly bubble to the surface. Rounding out the cast are the cops who arrive on the scene and end up returning to it several times. Sadieh Rifai and Eric Slater effectively portray the no-nonsense, tough Chicago cops—the kind you don’t want to cross--but soon reveal the humanity behind the blue. Finally, Jeff Kurysz plays Alex, a late arrival, with a bluff directness that reinforces his character’s own vulnerability. Fairey avoids stereotypes and judgment, and the performers bring her characters to life with the same understanding and empathy evident in the writing. Everyone gets trapped by perceptions, but impressions don’t make the person.

Lending polish is a remarkably coherent design team. Jack Magaw, a frequent collaborator of the director’s, has effectively transported a realistic Chicago apartment to the cavernous Albert Theatre, creating a sense of cramped clutter in a space that dwarfs the real estate it portrays. In addition to the inevitable Cubs posters and Chicago star flag, there is an Apple Macintosh on the shelf as a reminder of how time flies. Lighting designer Jen Schriever creates the passage of time, the passing el train and a murky, trippy backdrop to an unanticipated rave. She is supported by the stunning work of sound designer Richard Woodbury, who manages Siri’s eclectic playlist (as envisioned by Fairey’s support group leader Brian), drowns the action with a passing train, brings several altercations to the sidewalk outside the window and creates the auditory backdrop of that rave. Tommy Rapley gives a huge assist in creating incidental choreography and a full-on ensemble movement piece when a semi-accidental trip provides even more safety for a different kind of self-expression in a sequence that goes on just long enough to alter perceptions of the characters. Matt Hawkins handles the character-driven fight choreography. Finally, costume designer Noël Huntzinger clearly knows how Chicagoans express themselves—Brian’s subtly new age accessories, Delano’s aggressively inoffensive sweater, Roger’s bulky work clothes, Alex’s evolving wardrobe, and the police officers’ unobtrusive civilian garb.

Support Group for Men contains the situational humor that you would expect from the title—and the fact that playwright Ellen Fairey has composed a group of men who have little in common on the surface to support each other. The differences in experiences and attitudes propel the action and dialogue through humorous and poignant moments. When Roger talks about not recognizing the person in the mirror, and that moment when mortality and middle age begin to feel real, there are probably few who can’t relate. As other humans enter the picture, it becomes clear that the play isn’t about what it means to be a man, but what it means to be a human, and how to claim and own your identity in a time when roles and labels are shifting. There is a lot of love in this play, both in the writing and the production. Director Kimberly Senior and her stellar cast and design team ensure that every moment of the fleet 90-minute evening is filled. This is a hilarious play and production and the cast enjoys every twist and turn, as will the audience, but the serious themes don’t get drowned out by the laughter. Ellen Fairey has written a clear-eyed yet compassionate argument for all humans to listen to each other. Will it solve everything? No. But it beats being alone. What starts out looking contrived and a bit silly ultimately seems sensible… create safe spaces for people to speak and listen, even if your softball league falls apart. Talking stick optional.

Support Group for Men runs Wednesdays – Sundays through July 29 at the Goodman Theatre. Tickets are $25 - $80. For more information, dates and times, and tickets, visit www.goodmantheatre.org/supportgroup or call the box office at 312-443-3800. More information at www.theatreinchicago.com.

Photo by Liz Lauren: Tommy Rivera-Vega (Kevin), Ryan Kitley (Brian), Keith Kupferer (Roger) and Anthony Irons (Delano)

Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.