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Illegal Use of Hands
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2012-09-12

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Illegal Use of Hands. Photo by Johnny Knight


Playwright: James Still. At: American Blues Theater at Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.. Tickets: 773-871-3000; www.americanbluestheater.com; $19-$39. Runs through: Sept. 30

The fiction requires a small agrarian community where high school still figures as prominently as church and family in its young citizens' upbringing. Ex-varsity football star Roy recalls fondly when he and his fellow teammates were heroes, when girls were princesses to be courted, when his best friend wasn't queer (that anyone knew), when their futures stretched ahead of them in a highway with no road signs. In short, before that fatal day when an erroneous call at the homecoming game scuttled their destinies for all eternity.

Who says tragic myth doesn't encroach on real life? Trouble is, that's not how it happened, except in Roy's fabrications. They lost the game 70-0, former quarterback Cody reminds him. Nevertheless, on this homecoming night decades later, a stalled-out truck brings an incensed Roy and a reluctant Cody to the door of aged ex-referee Wallace, whose decision Roy blames for the contagion condemning their team to defeat, the town to inertia and himself to failure. Will this confrontation inspire justice, vengeance or a long-delayed exorcism?

James Still's scenario lends itself to cheap grunt-and-guffaw gags leading up to bearish male-bonding hugs, but director Sandy Shinner refuses to reduce her text to a beer commercial. Roy is not a TV-sitcom musclehead—he holds down a job, he accepts Cody's homosexuality and his reaction to this significant date will likely pass. What we come to understand, however, is that the frustration spurring him to seek a scapegoat for his own unfulfilled life is not far removed from the reasons behind Cody's return to his boyhood environs after having ventured out into wider realms, or Wallace's retreat to rural solitude from a universe too big for comfort.

Much of this emerges so subtlely in this American Blues Theater production as to be undetectable by any but the most alert playgoers, while other questions remain unanswered, even after an undeniably sentimental dawn arrives for our trio. As the story's chief instigator, Howie Johnson's Roy sometimes fumbles a role demanding greater stamina than was evidenced on opening night, leaving veteran trouper Dennis Zacek's Wallace to steer our sympathies toward his hoggish nemesis. Ultimately, it is lost-American-boy Cody, which Steve Key plays with quiet stoicism, who wins our hearts—when he storms out to continue his flight from a past delivering only sorrow and disappointment, we long to follow him.


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