Lotto Fever in the Sucker State
Dramedic effort with mixed results
|Saint Sebastian Players presents|
|Lotto Fever in the Sucker State|
Review by Lauren Whalen
I wasn’t a farm kid, but the majority of my classmates were, plus my dad drove trucks (pickup and semi). One of my earliest memories is running through a cornfield and feeling the stalks poke my legs – they’re sharper than they look. As a native of central Illinois, I was optimistic about Lotto Fever in the Sucker State. Not much pop culture is set in my home territory, and it’s a shame: the location is rich in scenery, character and quirk. Written by Saint Sebastian Players company member Leigh Johnson, the play’s set in an interesting time as well as location: circa 1988, during the farm foreclosure crisis that affected many. Unfortunately, Lotto Fever’s many faults (a bloated running time and stereotypical characters among them) don’t quite overcome its strengths.
At Rayners’ Victory Café, new owner Steven (Justin Wirsbinski) is trying to build his customer base beyond the stalwart regulars, among them the Smithfield family. This three-generation farm clan is dealing with a lot of secrets: the loss of a father to cancer, a cranky grandfather (Ed McGuire) picking fights with his college-dropout grandson (Logan Hulick), a Bible-beating mother (Pam Tierney) and anxiety-ridden, possibly psychic daughter (Hannah Cooney) and a matriarch (Nancy Pollock) just trying to keep the peace. Oh, and they may be growing pot, which has not gone unnoticed by a pair of bumbling DEA agents (Neil O’Callaghan and Raj Malhotra) trying desperately to keep a low profile. In the midst of it all is harried waitress Noreen (Angela Bullard), who’s always ready with a quip and a cup of coffee.
According to the press materials, Saint Sebastian Players is a membership-based, nonprofit, non-Equity theater company. If last night’s production is any indication, they are very long on enthusiasm and loyalty (several company members appear in Lotto Fever). Sadly, Johnson’s script falls short on many levels. The play is far too long: the first act alone is almost an hour and a half. It tries to be a dramedy, a very tough genre in the most capable of hands, but the beats alternate between slapstick and almost scary. Too much is going on, and the play can never quite decide what it wants to be. Hulick’s unfortunate son character has a lot of understandable anger, but both actor and playwright go over-the-top with it. And though it may have been timely, racist jokes (having a Cuban DEA agent pretend to be Native American) are neither appropriate nor funny.
It’s a shame about the script, because there are many things to like about Lotto Fever. As professor Malcolm Hodges, Ricks channels Jurassic Park-era Sir Richard Attenborough with passionate gusto. Malholtra has some fun with his Miami Vice wannabe government agent, and Cooney is a winning ingénue. McGuire nails his portrayal of the grizzled farmer Zachary Smithfield, bringing to mind many real-life characters from my childhood. And Bullard’s Noreen is an absolute treasure, with lovely comic timing and a hearty sense of fun.
The real star, however, of Lotto Fever is its lovely set, for which designer Ryan Emens deserves many kudos. It’s a perfect replication of an old-school diner with a big dose of Midwestern charm, complete with booths, kitschy wall decorations and a bell that rings when customers enter and exit. I’m a sucker for diners in all forms, and Lotto Fever’s made me want to sit down, swill coffee and eat my weight in pie.
Lotto Fever’s main issue is its source material. Not the setting or time period, not the characters, but a script that can’t effectively straddle the line between pathos and belly laughs. Dramedy can be done, and done well, but here it falls flat. And not even a wonderful set and compelling performances can salvage mediocrity.
Lotto Fever continues through November 23rd at St. Bonaventure, 1625 W. Diversey (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $10-$20, and are available through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at SaintSebastianPlayers.org. (Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by John C. Oster
Ed McGuire (Zachary Smithfield), Nancy Pollock (Emma Smithfield), Ned Ricks (Malcolm Hodges), Angela Bullard (Noreen), Mark Kollar (Agent Monahan, 10/28-11/9), Thomas Sparks (Agent Monahan, 11/14-23), Hannah Cooney (Mary Smithfield), Logan Hulick (Calvin Smithfield), Raj Malhotra (Luis Castro), Neil O’Callaghan (Hubert Jenkins), Pam Tierney (Helen Smithfield), Justin Wirsbinski (Steven Rayner)
behind the scenes
Jonathan “Rocky” Hagloch (director), Paula Kenar (costume design), Josh Hurley (properties manager), Don Johnson (sound engineer), John C. Oster (program book editor, photographer), Jim Masini (producer), Leigh Johnson, Jill Chukerman Test (associate producers), Ryan Emens (set design), Chazz Malott (lighting design), Al Cerkan (production stage manager)