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Theater Review:

"WAVING GOODBYE," Naked Eye Theatre Company at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

One of the most profound questions Chicago playwright Jamie Pachino asks in "Waving Goodbye" is "How do you tell the story of a life in one moment?" She later ponders, "What’s so important about a moment when it disappears?" – then brings her dramatic ideas full circle by titling one of those crucial moments "begin." But Pachino – who crafted this artist-themed drama with the assistance of a Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Production Grant and Naked Eye Theatre Company – struggles with more potently etching her characters and exploring their crucial "moments" of emotional development. Those aspects do take better shape in the second act when Pachino’s characters extend beyond sketches.

Her structure may consciously or unconsciously mirror the visual-art process – moving from scrawls on paper to multidimensional masterpieces. And that’s commendable. But Act One gets too caught up in a whiny petulance, an aching vagueness and a slightly cliched approach to relationships to be truly fortifying. Even the flashbacks are not wholly realized.

"Waving Goodbye" centers on aspiring 17-year-old abstract-photographic artist Lily Blue, who was the last person to speak to her father (who called her on his satellite phone) as he lay dying in a snowy crevasse after a fall during a mountain-climbing expedition. She is then forced to live with her temperamental sculptor-mother Amanda, who abandoned her at various times throughout her infancy and childhood.

Resentful of her mother’s presence, Lily plunges deeper into a world of solitude – broken only by the reassuring flashbacks of her kind, athletic father (Jonathan) and the presence of a shy neighborhood boy named Boggy, who tells her stupid riddles (like "What did one volcano say to the other?" "I lava you.") Those riddles, while well-placed, quickly grow tired – another problem more evident in the first half.

Meanwhile, Amanda tries desperately to be a friend to Lily, who continues to reject her. Then Amanda learns through her flamboyant art dealer, Perry, about a major commission that will bring her a substantial amount of money. For a struggling artist like Amanda, this news seems to be a blessing but turns into a curse when – through the hazy grief of losing her husband – she must find a way to create as she suffers from intense artist’s block.

It’s certainly brave of Pachino to tackle the difficult subject of a woman who is able to feel so transcendentally about expressing the elusive meaning of life in her art yet could not bear the thought of being a mother. Nevertheless, the mother-daughter conflict at the heart of "Waving Goodbye" feels pat in places and cries out for a more layered understanding of Amanda’s quite serious psychological issues. She comes across as the stereotypically disturbed visual artist. And many of her actions appear to be related to bi-polar manic depression – which is never addressed in the script.

And while it’s clear that Amanda needs her freedom (after all, she and Jonathan met on top of a mountain), it’s not wholeheartedly explored why she perceives her options as being so limited. Perry touches on this when she reprimands Amanda: "Just because you’re lost, doesn’t mean you can disappear." And it’s that astute and poetic approach to speech at which Pachino excels. But too often the characters feel like they’re flailing about – a common challenge during the grieving process but not entirely successful dramatically.

In general, a more grounded clarity needs to emerge from the playwright’s provocative use of metaphor. As it stands, some of the play’s structural seams are still showing.

Even though Jonathan is an elusive specter, his character remains sadly undeveloped. He’s objectified by Amanda to the point where he’s just a strong pair of forearms for her to sculpt – and is rarely given a chance to reveal any complex emotions. The wise-cracking Perry, written for the charismatic Alexandra Billings, has too many broadly caricaturized moments at odds with the more measured and ponderous tone of the drama. Even for comic relief purposes, Perry is too overpowering. And the sensitive young boy Boggy – apart from a brilliant deconstruction of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme – doesn’t quite fit into the story.

What does work is Pachino’s ability to draw moving parallels between the artist’s burning need for expression and an individual’s unstoppable quest for scaling the heights of nature itself. And, although she occasionally has her characters slip into highly staged speech, their radiant observations on everything from "hunting the light" to what gives a work of art meaning can be very empowering. Lily’s longing for significance is the play’s most touching theme.

Director Jeremy B. Cohen creates a kinetic and stingingly intelligent dramatic environment.

Julia Neary pours her entire being into the hyper-erratic role of Amanda – convincing us at every manic turn her desire for a fiercely boundless sense of freedom. Liesel Matthews, a teenage actress of great maturity, gradually unveils the many tiers of Lily’s anger (although she could tone down the excessive gesticulating). James McKay, another young and talented actor, endows Boggy with a sharp-edged innocence.

But Brian Shaw must contend with Jonathan’s one-dimensionality; and Billings as Perry, whose outrageous outfits and bon mots are sure to elicit laughs, seems to have stepped in from another play – that’s how divergent her character is from the work’s tone.

A play about visual artists certainly boasts a gifted design team – most notably Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s rain-soaked skylight hovering over Amanda’s loft studio filled with ladders to underscore the climbing motif; Lindsay Jones’ penetratingly evocative original music and sound design; and Jaymi Lee Smith’s entrancing lighting, which most closely mirrors Amanda’s obsessive search for light – and for the source of that spark that makes us feel truly alive.•

Naked Eye Theatre Company’s production of "Waving Goodbye" runs through January 6 at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets: $24-$27. A limited number of $10 rush tickets are available from 11 a.m. to noon on the day of performance. Call 312-335-1650 or log onto www.steppenwolf.org. For more information on Naked Eye, visit www.nakedeyetheatre.org.

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