Review: fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life (Steppenwolf for Young Adults)

| March 7, 2012
(left to right) Lily Mojekwu with Ian Daniel McLaren and Zoe Levin in Steppenwolf for Young Adults' production of fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life written by Sarah Gubbins and directed by Joanie Schultz.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.       
      
fml: how Carson McCullers
            saved my life
 

Written by Sarah Gubbins 
Directed by Joanie Schultz 
at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
thru March 18  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
        Read entire review
     


     
       

As Catholic schools choose not to attend, show becomes timely as ever

     

(left to right) Fiona Robert and Ian Daniel McLaren in Steppenwolf for Young Adults' production of fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life written by Sarah Gubbins and directed by Joanie Schultz. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

    
Steppenwolf for Young Adults presents
    
fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life

Review by J.H. Palmer

Sarah Gubbinsfml: how Carson McCullers saved my life uses Carson McCullers’ book “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” as a flashpoint for Jo (Fiona Robert), the main character in the play who is an openly lesbian student at a parochial school in La Grange, IL. Jo finds a connection between John Singer, the main character in McCullers’ book, and her own experience of isolation. The play is told with a minimum of characters: Jo, Mickey (Ian Daniel McLaren) a friend of Jo’s who is openly gay, Emma (Zoe Levin) the all-American blonde who is dating a member of the football team and has befriended Jo, Ms. Delaney (Lily Mojekwu), the English teacher who has assigned Carson McCullers’ book to the class, and Reed (Bradley Grant Smith), Jo’s older brother. Far from simplifying Jo’s plight, the handful of characters intensify the feeling of Jo’s isolation: threats made to her are made by unseen characters – Emma’s boyfriend disapproves of the friendship between her and Jo, and the audience knows him only through his multitude of text messages – cleverly displayed on one of three screens above the set with accompanying sound effects. Many of his texts have a menacing (left to right) Fiona Robert and Zoe Levin in Steppenwolf for Young Adults' production of fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life written by Sarah Gubbins and directed by Joanie Schultz.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.edge – it’s clear that he doesn’t want Emma to spend time with Jo because of her sexuality. Jo is known as a lesbian not because she’s dating girls at school (she’s not dating anyone,) but because of her outward appearance: she has short hair, plays basketball, and prefers to wear pants. She has a schoolgirl crush on her English teacher, Ms. Delaney, much to the teasing delight of Mickey. Aside from Ms. Delaney, Reed is the only adult presence in this play, providing sage wisdom, cutting humor, and a surrogate parent figure to Jo.

Texting isn’t the only extra-curricular medium used to tell this story: the play is acted out in several chapters, the titles of each illuminated on a screen. Jo is writing a graphic novel, and the audience sees her work (as interpreted by comics artist Lydia Conklin) shown on the screens in tandem with Jo’s narration. The staging is executed cleverly, using two spinning pieces that together represent six different spaces in Jo’s life, and used to maximum effect during a scene when Mickey and Emma are searching for Jo, the rooms spinning endlessly until they find her.

Robert is herself a high school student at the Chicago Academy for the Arts High School, and easily embodies the angst and pent-up energy of Jo in the most elegant way possible. Refreshingly, Jo is not used as a stand-in for All Gay Students, she is simply herself, and that’s what gets her into trouble. The intimidation starts when the word “faggot” is written in red marker on Jo’s locker, an incident which creates static between Jo, Emma, and Mickey. Mickey intimates that Emma’s boyfriend is the culprit, or is at least associated with them, putting Emma in the position of having to defend herself from guilt by association. This creates a rift among the three principal characters. Ms. Delaney takes Jo aside to discuss the incident, and in the process shares some of the pain she has experienced in her own life.

(left to right) Fiona Robert and Lily Mojekwu in Steppenwolf for Young Adults' production of fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life written by Sarah Gubbins and directed by Joanie Schultz.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

I braced myself for the hate-crime scene that I knew had to be coming, which is handled off-scene, using sound effects, voiceover, outline illustrations from Jo’s graphic novel flashing on the screen, and video close-ups of Robert’s bloodied face. Somehow this didn’t feel less brutal than witnessing an actual hate crime, but it does make it effective in its use of narration and multimedia. Hearing Jo’s thoughts as she is being beaten by an unknown menacing presence brings the audience right into her head in a way that would not be possible if the act were simply shown to the audience.

This piece, highlighting the plight of being an out gay teen, is executed poetically and artistically, and could not be timelier. Dan Savage of the It Gets Better Project will be appearing on Friday, March 9 in a special post-show discussion along with his brother Bill Savage. there are matinee performances for school groups Tuesdays-Fridays at 10am, and the March 10 and March 17 shows are pay-what-you-can to make it accessible to students who are unable to attend with a school group. In a questionable move, area Catholic schools are avoiding this production (with the notable exception of St. Josephinum Academy), but have patronized Steppenwolf for Young Adults in the past. Hallie Gordon, Director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, is quoted in the Sun-Times as saying “We usually have tons of Catholic schools who come to see our shows,” adding that some shows play to half-empty houses. “We’ve been struggling with teachers bringing their students, because of the subject matter. It’s been hard.” This show deserves a high rating on its own artistic merit, and it would be a huge waste to have this work play to partial audiences in the name of ignorance. Add this one to your calendar.

  
Rating: ★★★★
     
   

fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life continues through March 18th at Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with 10am weekday performances for school groups, public performances Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $15-$20 (2-for-1 pricing on Sundays), and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online at here. More information at Steppenwolf.org(Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission)

(left to right) Zoe Levin and Bradley Grant Smith in Steppenwolf for Young Adults' production of fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life written by Sarah Gubbins and directed by Joanie Schultz.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

All photos by Michael Brosilow 


     

artists

cast

Zoe Levin, Ian Daniel McLaren, Lily Mojekwu*, Fiona Robert, Bradley Grant Smith

behind the scenes

Joanie Schultz (director); Chelsea Warren (scenic design); David Hymen (costumes); Lee Keenan (lighting); Thomas Dixon (sound design); Mike Tutaj (projections); Matt Engle (violence choreography); Lydia Conklin (comics artist), Erica Daniels, CSA (casting); Aaron Carter (dramaturg); Cassie Wolgamott* (stage manager); Michael Brosilow (photos)

· * denotes members of Actors Equity 

12-0303

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: 2012 Reviews, J.H. Palmer, Steppenwolf

Comments (1)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

There are no comments yet. Why not be the first to speak your mind.

Comments are closed.