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Theater Review:

CollaborAction Theatre Company’s "THE LIFE AND TIMES OF TULSA LOVECHILD: A ROAD TRIP" at Chicago Dramatists


Playwright Greg Owens’ journey-structured tragicomedy, "The Life and Times of Tulsa Lovechild: A Road Trip," takes several sharp detours through the fluctuating values and viewpoints of contemporary generations without ever getting lost in ponderous exposition. This frank, incisive and surreal play is receiving its midwest premiere in an equally adventurous staging by CollaborAction at Chicago Dramatists. And the entire experience proves to be quite a loopy and fortifying ride.

The titular Tulsa Lovechild, now in her 30s, drives to the motel where she was born (off Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Interstate) to scatter the ashes of her ex-hippie mom. But what may sound like a standard dramatic route to self-revelation turns out to be a smart, gracefully written and wholly original story about the value and unpredictability of human connections. Along the way, Tulsa picks up a disgruntled L.A. actor (known for his TV role of Johnny Buckskin, Boy Detective) intent on running away from Hollywood and living a "normal" life.

Their bumpy and sublime encounters are interspersed with flashbacks to Tulsa’s pregnant mom, Sylvia, battling over Vietnam ideologies with her boyfriend, Woody, in their motel room. Woody leaves Sylvia for Vietnam. In one of the play’s most touchingly real scenes, the dead Woody delivers an unsanctimonious monologue from his stretcher about what death feels like (the sound-proof booth on a game show) and if his child even knows who he is, or at least listens to his "eight-tracks."

Like any wild road trip, this play is populated with blazing eccentrics. But Owens wisely tempers their quirks so that we never lose sight of their humanity. Like the W-shaped palm trees in "It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," all the characters converge at the cheap motel run by Bob, an all-knowing Russian émigré. But instead of seeking a pile of filthy lucre, these roadies are searching for a currency of the soul.

We meet Miss Nebraska desperately eluding her lovesick, John Deere combine-driving husband Clyde; and a pair of Siamese twins, Rose and Valerie, trying to escape from the evil Rev. Melvin – who heads the Church of the Howling Savior – so they can get an operation that will separate them. The playwright also introduces us to Stockton, Tulsa’s Commie-hating stepfather, who points out that "all kinds of people fall in love."

And that thought sums up the driving force behind all of our journeys: a desire to love and to be loved – to find our soulmate. But "Tulsa Lovechild" explores infinitely relevant topics – believing in a cause, selling out, defining a generation, achieving inner peace and living one’s life to its fullest potential at all costs.

Owens is capable of writing bizarre characters with honest insights into the mad, whirling energy of the world.

Director Kimberly Senior never pushes these wacky and wise folks into the realm of farce. Kati Brazda’s solidly committed but ideologically confused Tulsa grounds this superb production. She is complemented by Michael Dobbs’ emotionally complex portrayal of Johnny Buckskin.

Other impressionable performances include Jennifer Avery’s jaded, outspoken Rose and Elizabeth Rich as her starry-eyed conjoined twin Valerie; Suzanne Lang as a quietly fervent Sylvia; Jamie Vann’s sleazy politician-preacher Melvin, whose veins seem to ooze with snake oil; and Tim Curtis as the prophetic, non-judgmental Bob.

The final rapturous and heartwrenching scene reminds us all to find something to really believe in.

CollaborAction Theatre Company’s production of "The Life and Times of Tulsa Lovechild: A Road Trip" runs through July 22 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. Tickets: $15. Call 312-409-2741.

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