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Theater Review:

"THE BEGINNING OF AUGUST," Pendulum Theatre Company at Athenaeum Theatre


Like the neatly manicured suburban enclave where it is set, Tom Donaghy’s dark comedy, "The Beginning of August," hides uncomfortable realities behind its seemingly conventional story. A young mother inexplicably abandons her husband and infant daughter – setting into motion a chain of shocking admissions. But, despite its compelling premise, Donaghy’s play tends to get stuck in self-conscious zaniness – as if the playwright set out to write a sitcom then tried to weave in deeper elements but forgot to scrap some of the earlier showy vapidity.

"The Beginning of August" is receiving its Chicago premiere by Pendulum Theatre Company at the Athenaeum Theatre in a solid staging by Carolyn Mlakar, hampered only by the script’s often laborious dithering. A company known for its high-quality productions of lesser-known plays, Pendulum has chosen a work with provocative ideas that strain to be realized. So the experience is entertaining if not wholly satisfying.

All of the action – or, at times, non-action – takes place in Jackie’s backyard. Jackie, a young professional man whose wife Pam has run away, asks his stepmother -- the unstable Joyce -- to babysit while he goes to work and struggles to make ends meet. Loitering around is a slacker house painter, Ben, who had a crush on Pam and invents projects just so he could stick around. Also involved in these awkward proceedings is Ted, a neighbor who had a brief gay fling with Jackie. The unseen characters are the prying eyes of residents, whose unspoken judgments Jackie rails against in futile desperation.

A curious play, with some wittily irreverent exchanges between Ben and Joyce, "The Beginning of August" sets up a scenario of mildly dysfunctional people whose neatly prescribed worlds get painfully shredded. Unfortunately, the playwright spends too much time lingering in a certain monotonous malaise – most notably, Joyce’s antsy loneliness. For much of the first act, Donaghy doesn’t quite know what to do with characters when they are alone on stage for a long time. That aching boredom may just be the playwright’s point, but he also allows it to seep into the audience.

We grow to understand that these people have nothing to say to each other – especially Jackie, who silently resents his stepmother as much as she later accuses him of getting in the way of her newlywed bliss. When Ted arrives to mow the lawn, Joyce rambles on about secret desires as Ted talks about cruise-ship amenities.

Of course, all of these faux-conversations are meant to underscore the increasing shallowness of societal expectations. But Donaghy could more sharply focus his dramatic objectives. Ben, while a laidback comic-relief device, seems thrown in for no other reason. The playwright also shortchanges Ted and the complexities of the sexual identity issues with which Jackie struggles. So one gets the feeling of characters being put together to interact on stage and illustrate an idea, rather than real people connecting on multitiered human levels.

It isn’t until the arrival of the psychologically bruised Pam in the second act that the play moves into daring territory. Jackie’s wish to pretend that "nothing happened" is juxtaposed against Pam’s insistence that "something’s happened." And, what began as a mystery/family drama, ends with a startling revelation about the flaws of the family structure as we know it. Roles are reversed, and responsibilities are dispersed in a sane but unsettling way. Had the playwright explored these bold ideas without the excess – and half-realized – quirkiness, "The Beginning of August" would have resonated on a more stingingly honest level.

Mlakar’s unfussy direction allows the play to unfold in a measured way. Tom Bateman’s Jackie, although a bit too wiry and jittery, conveys his character’s tightly wound confusion. Jan Sodaro handles Joyce’s deeply buried naughtiness with grace and a quietly tragic sense of neediness. Rian Jairell infuses Ben with a charismatically deadpan quality. Bill Redding, although gentle and sincere as Ted, could still grow more comfortable in the role.

One of the most searing performances, however, belongs to Rebecca Spence as reluctant mother Pam, who can no longer face the hypocrisies and psychoses engendered by the modern nuclear-family concept.•

Pendulum Theatre Company’s production of "The Beginning of August" runs through April 7 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $15-$18. Call 312-902-1500.

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