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CHICAGO YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL

at Pegasus Players

The view offered in the four pieces that make up this year's Chicago Young Playwrights Festival is certainly bleak. Here are scenes of horrifying intensity, confrontations with incestuous parents, family upheaval, violence, and death. But here too--especially in Clarence Lang's vital The Chevy Odyssey--are illuminating scenes.

The festival, a contest for 12- to 19-year-old students in Chicago-area schools, had more than 250 scripts to choose from this year. Pegasus Players, the sponsoring theater, offered the young writers improv workshops and basic direction on theatrical techniques, then set them free to write about whatever they wanted. The students were of course particularly encouraged to write about what they know, using materials and experiences from their own lives. As a result, the seriousness of the issues explored in the four one-act scripts reflects genuine truths about the grim realities of this generation.

Yet the winners aren't all inner-city survivors dissecting awful socioeconomic conditions. Indeed, they come from two academic powerhouses--Lane Tech and Saint Ignatius--as well as Senn Metropolitan Academy and Sullivan House West, a former reform school repackaged as an "alternative high school for students who decide not to follow the regular educational curriculum." In other words, as hardcore as the material often is, these young playwrights seem to be saying: Life is a challenge for everybody, no matter who you are.

The four plays fall into two broad categories: Absolution by Lane's Luis Perez and Empty Spaces by a Sullivan collective explore external themes, while Lang's piece and Black Ink on a Black Page by Senn's Shanton Russell take on more internal dramas.

In Absolution Perez details a meeting between a disillusioned son and his estranged father, who has a history of molesting his daughter. Everyone in the family is trying to come to terms with the situation and forgive him. But the son, who has been spared physical abuse, can't quite do it. "I wanted to forgive you," he tells the father, "but you never asked for forgiveness." To his credit, Perez handles the material with great sensitivity. He never succumbs to sentimentality or the temptations of a happy or otherwise tidy ending. The change in the characters is incremental, but more convincing as a result. The most problematic thing about Absolution is Gary Griffin's direction. There's simply too much movement, too much standing up and sitting down and turning away for no reason. The tensions might be more clearly underscored if he'd allow Perez's characters to just simmer.

Empty Spaces, which credits nine authors, illustrates the old axiom about too many cooks. Although the piece has energy, sharp language, and style, it's decidedly unfocused. It also traffics in too many stereotypes without rising above them. That may seem like pretty harsh criticism for such young writers, but even in the context of this festival Empty Spaces never gets off the ground. The ending in particular is both obvious and gratuitous.

The other two pieces are less dramatic but far more complex and involving. In Black Ink on a Black Page Shanton Russell, who is not gay, explores what happens when an idolized oldest son in a fatherless home is found out to be gay. His mother is horrified, and his younger, admiring brother is left disillusioned and without role models. "I'm not asking you to like me," says Anthony, the high school basketball hero, to his mother, "just not to hate me."

Like Perez, Russell refuses to give this tangled emotional mess an easy ending. He allows his characters honest human confusion, anger, and love. Gay activists may not like the piece's ambivalent ending, but it's probably more true to life than many other, more celebrated plays.

The triumph of the festival is Clarence Lang's The Chevy Odyssey, which virtually soars. Primarily a monologue, expertly played by wiry Jeffrey Lieber, Lang's story follows a young man for one night as he drives around Chicago, trying to find direction in his life. The language is riveting, the energy electric. The play sings with toughness, uncommon vulnerability, and wacky wisdom. "I have so much ambition, I feel I'm going to blow up," Lieber shouts. "I want to make a footprint so big it's a sinkhole. . . . What's so crazy about wanting to be immortal?"

The work's most startling moment is also its most tender. After talking with a pal about his recent breakup, Lieber's character imagines how his last conversation with his girlfriend might have been different. "I'm still learning to play the game," he wishes he'd told her. "Be patient with me. This is the closest I've ever been to loving someone. In the meantime . . . you're safe with me."

Lang, a senior at Saint Ignatius, says he's been influenced by J.D. Salinger, S.E. Hinton, and Jack Kerouac. It's wonderful that at this young age he's already made their lessons his own.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.

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