"TREEFALL" Offers Bleak Vision of the Future @ Exit 63 Theatre

"TREEFALL" Offers Bleak Vision of the Future @ Exit 63 Theatre

2.5 stars out of 4

There is too little hope in both the script and Exit 63 Theatre’s Chicago premiere of Treefall to ameliorate the plodding inexorability of the events that unfold. In a world decimated by disease and environmental disaster, three orphaned boys try to maintain a strained nuclear family as falling trees and dwindling supplies threaten the home they have created in a remote cabin. The family structure is already crumbling when a stranger enters and inadvertently causes the rifts to widen. Despite a dedicated cast and immersive design, director Connor Baty’s production does not allow the humor and very real family ties in the script to be fully realized, making it difficult to empathize with the characters trapped in the disintegrating new normal that playwright Henry Murray has created.

Treefall explores the meaning of family in a post-apocalyptic world where pockets of humanity fight for the limited remaining resources and avoid the sunlight. Though they cling to the fantasy that their mothers will return to them, Flynn, August, and Craig realize this is unlikely. To preserve their sense of humanity and civilization, the (usually) nurturing Flynn has appointed himself head of a nuclear family and the boys play out their roles based on distant memories of past homes, with Flynn as Father, August as the harried Mother, and the youngest, Craig, as Junior. The family unit is strained by enforced gender roles, teenage hormones and sexual urges and remarkably normal issues of child-rearing. Craig, educated mostly by his ersatz parents, is struggling to understand his own gender and sexuality, an area of his education that Flynn has neglected (a fact he tries in vain to remedy), though he has encouraged Craig’s interest in reading and drama. Into this fraught household comes a girl, Bug, who is on a final quest to see the ocean once more before she dies. Her presence increases the tension between August and Flynn, and tragically confuses Craig, who has no recollection of females. There are too few moments that reveal the boys’ need for the family they have created, and the reasons why they persist in trying to hold onto it, though the ensemble have created a sense of lived-in comfort with each other. 

Director Connor Baty has assembled a committed cast that throw themselves into their roles with gusto, though he does not allow the quieter moments and revelations to inform the action, leading to an even bleaker scenario than the already bleak script for Treefall envisions. There are some beautiful quiet moments—when Flynn explains the importance of the dawn in Romeo and Juliet, when Craig tells Bug that her presence seems to be the cause of the fights he does not understand, when Bug and August act out a normal teenage conversation, and Flynn tries to convince August to remain civilized in a way that he failed to be. There is a quiet need running under these scenes that gets lost in the desperation that characterizes other scenes and makes it hard to stay on board for the journey. Also sapping the momentum are the slow transitions between scenes that deflate the tension and reset the action. Finally, the dangers of the dawn seem to be less terrifying than the script indicates in the actors’ responses to accidental exposure to sunlight, both in the cabin and on the mountain. Scenic designers Bill Gordon and Jeff Simpson have created a convincing facsimile of a crumbling cabin in the woods, cluttered with the detritus of civilization and artifacts of lost families, patched with cardboard and pages from books, and threatening to cave in under the weight of falling branches that puncture holes and let in the deadly sunlight. Lighting designer David Goodman-Edberg mostly overcomes the difficulty of backlighting the set and creating the shifts between night and day, though the exterior scenes are not as clearly defined. Sound designer Teddy Gates mixes poignant music selections and very realistic falling timber effects. The costumes by Bailey Castle allow the characters to play out their roles, Bug to hide herself from the world, and help accentuate the dangers that lie outside the cabin. The fight choreography by Bill Gordon is immediate and visceral.

The young cast does a good job of immersing themselves in the frustrations and fears of their characters. Andrew Garcia is charming and nurturing as Flynn, but also takes advantage of his size to impose on his “family” in ways that are not at all paternal—he allows himself to become the frightening elder, before trying equally hard to regain the moral high ground he firmly believes in. Shea Petersen as August has the double frustration of the middle child and the mom—he finds the appropriate volatility, bullying the younger Craig and trying to hang onto what the family used to provide despite his victimization by Flynn. He has enough self-consciousness to inject vulnerability into his attempts at rebellion. Matt Schutz, as the childlike Craig, manages to find some of the humor of trying to understand the tropes of the world that he has only seen through Flynn, August and the books he reads, which is confusing at best. Schutz also reveals the pain of growing up, magnified by having to do so in a world that is literally a dark reflection of the one he knows through fiction. In the script, it is Craig who embodies the tragic consequences of the human-made disasters that menace the remnants of humanity, and Schutz, with real and fake tantrums and a complex and convoluted relationship with his doll/alter-ego is up to the task. As the guarded Bug, who has armed herself against the dangers of being a single female, Kirra Silver seems unsure in her interactions with Flynn and August but forges a brief but tender relationship with Craig. 

There is a lot to recommend in Exit 63 Theatre’s Treefall, but ultimately the slow transitions, the inconsistent responses to the perils of the decimated world outside, and the too-consistent darkness of the vision of this production make for a dreary 90 minutes. The need for a family is clearly articulated, but the characters seem to have given up on finding one too early, and the hopes for making meaningful connections are too tenuous. Despite this, director Connor Baty and his cast and designers have created an immersive apocalyptic vision and do not shy away from the brutalities it engenders. Though unpolished, the talents of the ensemble are evident in the company’s second outing.

Treefall, presented in its Chicago premiere by Exit 63 Theatre, runs Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm, through September 2 at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland. Tickets are available at exit63theatre.com. For more information visit www.exit63theatre.com or www.theatreinchicago.com.

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.