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Theater Review:

"CHAGRIN FALLS" at Stage Left Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

For its 20th-anniversary season opener, Stage Left Theatre continues its commitment to multifaceted debate with local playwright Mia McCullough’s drama, "Chagrin Falls," about a graduate student who travels to the titular Oklahoma town to witness the execution of a convicted murderer. But regardless of its description as a "death penalty drama," this world-premiere play stands out for its balanced ability to examine the confounded issue of how society in general reacts to death in various forms.

One can argue that the impending lethal injection of a child murderer -- and Patrice, the aspiring reporter, arriving to view his death and extract this small town’s opinions on the death penalty -- is at the drama’s core. But McCullough wisely opts not to embroil audiences in the intricate legalities of the death penalty and, instead, introduces related forms of collective "murder" – from war to Chagrin Falls’ other main industry: a cattle slaughterhouse.

The action is set in a diner/boarding house run by a tough-nosed, past-her-prime proprietor, Irene. When Patrice, who was one of the Amer-Asian orphans flown out of Vietnam and adopted by an American couple, shows up to interview locals about their proximity to Death Row, she meets people at odds with both the narrow mentality of their neighbors and their unspoken roles as society’s henchmen (whether they’re strapping criminals into chairs or killing cows).

This is a fascinating perspective, and the playwright even suggests the issue of euthanasia through the terminally ill mother of one of the prison guards. But McCullough is quick to not jumble too many ideas together. She does not dwell on mercy killing as much as parallel the long-suffering cancer victim with the clinical swiftness of the inmate’s lethal injection.

During her ulterior-motive-laced visit, Patrice is surprised to get enmeshed in the traumas of the townfolk – including deep-thinking prison guard, Thaddeus, who agrees to stay in this backwards community until his fatally ill mother passes away; a dimwitted guard, Henry, who must face his own apprehensions over putting someone to death; the self-doubting prison chaplain, Rev. Macomb; an anguished Irene, whose strong exterior hides a forbidden entanglement with the much younger Thaddeus; and perhaps the most pivotal character, Riley, a mentally unbalanced Vietnam vet and slaughterhouse worker who recently lost his wife and helps Patrice reach an important revelation about her gnawing anger over American GIs.

Despite a single diner set, which restricts the action and forces a few contrived moments, "Chagrin Falls" initially threatens to be more an exchange of arguments and ideas between characters who are mere mouthpieces than a compelling story about real people. But McCullough avoids that trap and proceeds to flesh out the many dimensions of her characters and their uneasy dilemmas.

At one point, Irene – exhausted from Patrice’s probing into capital punishment – argues that she’s in the hospitality business, not the death business. But is she? McCullough ultimately brings the notion of blame to the fore – how truly removed are we all from killing, whether it’s a convict or a cow? Yet she doesn’t accuse anyone either or take sides. Rather the playwright makes us more acutely aware of who does our dirty work for us – butchers, soldiers and the anonymous figure who pulls the lever that releases poison into a Death Row inmate’s veins.

Director Kevin Heckman elicits an impressive array of believable performances from his cast. Harry Eddleman as the monotone-voiced Thaddeus, who conceals his rage behind a bookish demeanor, delivers a blistering interpretation of a nonconformist forced to suffer silently at the hands of his narrow-minded accusers. Morgan McCabe, with her whiskey-soaked voice, grounds the play with a fierce immovability as Irene.

Don Tieri masterfully unpeels the ambivalent and damaged layers of Riley, whose final scene with Jennifer Willison’s regal but vulnerable Patrice carries the play in a blazingly cathartic direction. Patrice’s struggles with the circumstances of her conception during wartime movingly merge the life and death cycle.

The big American flag at the center of Robert G. Smith’s ramshackle diner set – positioned so that we can symbolically see what’s behind the counter – is a potent reminder of our role as U.S. citizens to seriously address and debate the issue of mass-enforced death and its unrelenting consequences.

"Chagrin Falls" runs through November 3 at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield. Tickets: $15-$20. Call 773-883-8830 or log onto www.stagelefttheatre.com.

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