Fathers and Other Strangers | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Fathers and Other Strangers 

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Chicago Theatre Company

Fathers and Other Strangers is about silence. The silence that falls between us when we desperately need to connect. The silence that keeps us suspicious and ignorant of each other. The silence we impose upon ourselves, so we don't have to acknowledge our own weaknesses and failures. The silence we inherit almost unknowingly from a myriad of sources, both personal and institutional. As one character laments, "We learn not to love each other. Sometimes those who teach us are the ones we want to love most of all."

Playwright Jeff Stetson probes this silence in two parallel, interrelated stories. The first concerns Dr. Paul Janis (David Barr), a black psychiatrist who encounters "innocent" racists everywhere. Janis has become a psychiatrist because he wants to shape black children, to give them the self-respect and dignity that are continually denied him. But since he's a professional in a pricey business, his patients are almost exclusively white, and he sees himself as "a keeper of white people's lies." Janis is filled with rage, both at the system that perpetuates these lies and at himself for capitulating.

Paradoxically, Janis seems to have voluntarily isolated himself, even though the forces that are also pushing him into isolation seem entirely beyond his control. For example, when Janis visits Dr. Angoff (Darwin R. Apel), a white psychiatrist who seems genuinely committed to helping him, Angoff shows Janis his file. It says in part that Janis, "like many of the black race," has internalized racist stereotypes, become self-hating. Janis tears into Angoff furiously, telling him that he has no right to speak about "the black race" when he has had little contact with and shows even less understanding of black people. Yet what makes the scene so powerful is that Angoff is probably right: Janis does seem full of self-hatred. But because of an elaborate set of cultural norms that have allowed whites to speak on behalf of blacks for centuries, Janis cannot listen to Angoff. This seems the true tragedy of racism: that two people with the best intentions cannot connect because of the system that entombs both.

The second story line examines Janis's relationship with his father. Before he died, Janis's father was a janitor, and in Janis's eyes, he spent his life pleasing white people and denying his own self-worth. Janis held his father in utter contempt, the kind of contempt that barely conceals a fierce love. This relationship is echoed in the Nelson family, some of Janis's few black patients. Sixteen-year-old Edward (Dwain A. Perry) holds his upper-middle-class professional father (Kristian C. Crawford) in contempt because of his bourgeois, "not black enough" position as principal of a predominantly white high school. These two cannot communicate, seem determined not to, though it is heart-wrenchingly obvious that they love each other.

Almost all of the characters in this play are men. And it becomes increasingly clear that they have all been conditioned not to expect affection from or express affection toward other men. At arm's length from each other, both literally and figuratively, these men feel a distance that imposes yet another kind of silence. The one female character, Mrs. Nelson (Bonnie DeShong), has only one concern: to mend the rift between the men in her family.

Stetson weaves these two threads--institutionalized racism and "masculine" behavior--cleverly and insightfully, never implying that one is the result of the other but seeing the ways in which these two systems are related and perpetuate one another. It is a predicament that is wholly tragic because it is so readily seen in the real world. As Janis explains, "I hated the system that made my father die thinking he was a failure. The system that made me believe it, too."

Stetson's remarkable skill as a playwright makes this two-hour drama, being given a passionate world premiere by the Chicago Theatre Company, captivating but enormously frustrating and unsettling. He captures the institution of racism in all of its subtlety, complexity, and insidiousness. No one here is ultimately to blame, but everyone has some culpability, allowing the system to continue, too often channeling energy into useless hatred. As Janis says, "How do you measure responsibility? Do you have to cut someone, or is it enough to let him bleed?"

Stetson's script offers enormous challenges, and the Chicago Theatre Company meets every one of them. Chuck Smith's elegant direction is efficient and formal: he places his actors almost choreographically, blocking them along particular lines of motion from which they rarely veer. The play is thus perfectly clean, as the actors for the most part stand in one spot and deliver their lines with a simple commitment. There is no decoration here--nothing unnecessary, no showy theatrics for the actors to hide behind. Smith has distilled this play to its essence, giving the actors the room to commit fully to their roles.

And the actors are uniformly excellent. Not only do they demonstrate great technical expertise, delivering passionate speeches without moving so much as a finger, but they are able to reach the emotional heights that the play demands. Even the rather thinly drawn character of Mr. Stefano (George Kiefer), one of Janis's patients, is given surprising fullness. Crawford as Mr. Nelson is particularly strong when he struggles to suppress the emotions that threaten to explode when he's dealing with his son.

Patrick O. Kerwin's set and light design serve the play admirably: Janis's stark office is lit with great warmth. The costumes, designed by Glenn Billings, are perfect, the suits so beautifully tailored that these men look like real professionals, not theatrical equivalents. And the theater itself is ideal, intimate and yet formal, with completely open sight lines from every seat.

Perhaps Fathers and Other Strangers succeeds so well because it's so sincere. The actors seem to have internalized the material fully, giving the evening their genuine emotions. And because the play was delivered as a precious gift--I would venture to say that these actors are in love with it--I was able to surrender myself, seeing my personal stake in the issues. Rarely have I been so totally involved in a piece of theater.

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