Review: T. (American Theater Company)

| June 3, 2017

Leah Raidt stars as T. in T. at American Theater Company           


Written by Dan Aibel 
American Theater Co., 1909 W. Byron (map)
thru June 25  |  tix: $38  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


Funny, perceptive world premiere explores infamous rivalry


Leah Raidt stars as T. in T., American Theater Company

American Theater Company presents

Review by Catey Sullivan

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan: There’s not a women’s studies scholar on the planet who could come up with two more perfect examples of clashing feminine archetypes. With the world-premiere of Dan Aibel’s  T., American Theater Company explores the duos’ infamous rivalry and the society that gleefully fanned its flames.

Leah Raidt stars in T. at American Theater CompanyThe 1994 figure skating Olympians were the embodiment of butch (Harding) and femme (Kerrigan). Harding was the low-class bad girl to Kerrigan’s wholesome girl-next-door. Harding swore, smoked and had thighs that bulged with muscles. Kerrigan was a demure princess with the willowy figure of a ballerina. Kerrigan skated in high-necked bridal white. Harding opted for a garishly bedazzled mauve and red concoctions with illusion that highlighted her cleavage.

Their rivalry came to a brutal head when Kerrigan was clubbed in the leg roughly a month before the 1994 Olympics. Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly and her bodyguard Shawn Eckardt wound up serving prison time for the attack. Harding was banned from figure skating for life. But long before those punishments were handed down, Harding and Kerrigan were both named to the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team. They were also focus of a media frenzy that continued long after the last triple axel in Lillehammer.

With the funny, perceptive T., playwright Aibel’s shows that the attack on Kerrigan didn’t happen in a vacuum. Figure skating (and society’s) rigid rules about how women should behave and look played a significant role in Team T’s thuggish desperation.

Aibel’s no apologist for those who would take a pipe to their enemy’s tibia. But with T., he looks beyond the violence to explore its nasty causes. Everybody is guilty here, especially the demi-monde of ladies’ figure skating.

Aibel keeps the whack heard round the world offstage. But both before and after the attack on Kerrigan, he illuminates a world where Harding had virtually no agency over her own life. Harding’s every move – what she wears, what she eats, how she moves her own body – is dictated by others. Not even her mind is her own. “Tell her what to think,” Jeff (Tyler Ravelson) tells T’s coach Joanne (Kelli Simpkins).

Every waking moment of her life, Tonya is commodified, manipulated and micro-managed. She’s not so much a sentient human being as she is a freakish machine programmed to generate fame, wealth and golden medals for everyone in her orbit.

The one thing Tonya’s handlers cannot control? How she is relentlessly compared to “horse face,” a skater who – by any objective measure – simply isn’t as talented as Tonya. In 1994, Harding was the only woman in the world to have landed a triple axel. No other woman else had ever done it, no other woman was even close to trying. Triples, however, aren’t nearly as important as horse face’s photogenic smile. As Aibel makes clear, the figure skating world is about how women look as much as what they can do.

Tyler Ravelson and Kelli Simpkins star as Jeff and Joanne in T., American Theater Co Tyler Ravelson and Leah Raidt star as Jeff and T. in T., American Theater CompanyTyler Ravelson and Leah Raidt star as Jeff and T. in T. at American Theater Company

Aibel’s staccato, overlapping dialogue immediately and continuously evokes the style of David Mamet. It also takes some getting used to. Once you’ve acclimated, the characters start to pop.

As T (Aibel doesn’t give anybody a full name, perhaps to avoid any legal shenanigans), Leah Raidt could be Harding’s doppelgänger. She’s got a smile that’s pure sunshine, but when it falters, you can practically see the thunderclouds descending. Raidt delivers both the rage and the frustration that comes with having your life programmed by others.

At one point, T describes a grim schedule that literally keeps her in the dark. She runs sprints in a basement before the sun rises, drives hours to get to the practice rink, skating until the sun has long since set. “I swear sometimes I just feel wrung out,” she says in a voice that’s sadness laced through with bitterness.

T is also figuratively in the dark about important aspects of her own life. She’s constantly walking in mid-conversation as her others are discussing her life. Inevitably, all talk ceases when T enters the room. When she demands to know “what the issue” is, she’s met with silence.

Coach Joanne is perhaps the only person in T’s orbit who sees her as a person. Kelli Simpkins gives us a coach who is also inevitably the smartest person in the room. In Simpkins’ portrayal, Joanne has a laser-focus and no patience for the foolish, machismo nonsense of Jeff and Shawn. Filled with dry wit and arch delivery, it’s a winning performance.

As Jeff, Tyler Ravelson has a pornstache that tells you almost everything you need to know about the needy, skeevy, not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is persona of T’s husband. The ‘stache is hilarious, but it would be all wrong to reduce Ravelson’s performance to his facial hair. Jeff is a hustler (albeit an inept one), forever just one step away from scoring a mega-bucks deal that will make him and T rich.

He’s also an ulcer (or ten) in the making, constantly bristling with outrage over a media that fawns over horse face while reducing T to an afterthought. Ravelson also nails the casual racism that permeates his world view – in addition to “horse face,” T’s competition includes a “the Jap,” “the Pollock,” and “the Asian.”

As T’s father Al, Guy Massey is a beer-swilling knuckle-dragging ignoramus whose contributions to his daughter’s career amount to commentary along the lines of “Dorothy Hamill never dressed like a strumpet.” And as Shawn, Nate Wheldon is a clueless sad-sack whose IQ makes him unfit for any career much beyond bouncer.

Costume designer Stephanie Cluggish captures the track suit aesthetic of the early 1990s, and does a good job of creating the boldly colorful costumes Harding favored. Make sure to check out the green-and-mauve number laying on the bed – T never wears it, but it’s a credible take on Harding’s Lillehammer long program costume.

Like Jeff’s mustache, set designer Andrew Boyce’s paneled rec-room says a lot about the world T lives in. Anyone who came of age in the 1980s will recognize this place, from the prefab wood work covering the walls to the Furniture City-style coach.

Aibel’s drama is both a comedy and a cautionary tale. If you’re diminished and disrespected for years simply because you don’t “fit the script” society has decided on, you may eventually be overpowered by your resentment.

As French figure skater Surya Bonaly learned before Harding did, the women’s figure skating script demands willow-waisted waifs who smile more than they talk and deliver extraordinary feats of athleticism without ever breaking a sweat. The sport didn’t know what to do with a skater like Tonya Harding. With T., her story is comic, tragic and maddening.

Rating: ★★★

T. continues through June 25th at American Theater, 1909 W. Byron (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm & 8pm, Sundays 2pm.  Tickets are $20-$38 and are available by phone (773-409-4125) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 90 minutes, no intermission)

Tyler Ravelson and Nate Whelden star as Jeff and Shawn in T., American Theater Co

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Tyler Ravelson (Jeff), Leah Raidt (T.), Guy Massey (Al), Kelli Simpkins (Joanne), Nate Wheldon (Shawn), Dennis Frymire (understudy, Jeff, Shawn, Al), Almanya Narula (understudy, T.), Corrbette Pasko (understudy, Joanne).

behind the scenes

Margot Bordelon (director), Andrew Boyce (set design), Stephanie Cluggish (costume design), Rachel Levy (lighting design), Miles Polaski (sound design), Mealah Heidenreich (props design), Stephanie Diaz, Emjoy Gavion, Chicago Inclusion Project (understudy casting), Katie Klemme (stage manager), Kristen Jamerson (asst. stage manager), Logan Boyd Jones (production manager), Rebecca Willingham (assistant director), Sarah Grunnah (dramaturg), Meghan Erxleben (scenic charge), William Allen (master electrician), Ralph Loza (sound supervisor), Emily Swanson (wardrobe supervisor), Kathryn Walsh (text coach), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Leah Raidt stars as T. in T. at American Theater Company


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Category: 2017 Reviews, American Theater Company, Catey Sullivan, New Work, Video, World Premier, YouTube

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