Playwright: Sam Shepard. At: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. Tickets: 312-943-8722; www.aredorchidtheatre.org; $30-$40 . Runs through: Aug. 25
Once upon a time, in the California desert, there lived three friends who succumbed to deception, cheating off-track gamblers and framing a local gaming commissioner into taking the fall. The plan was for the trio to part company afterward, but Lyle and Rosie paired up to forge prestigious new identities amid Kentucky's equestrian aristocracy. Understandably fearful of exposure, Lyle has ascertained for 15 years that his partner in crime and the victim thereof remain in his debt, dispensing protection to the former and employment to the latter. Fellow shyster and chronic confabulator Vinnie has now fallen for a decent girl, however, and wants to "come clean." His absolution involves handing over long-preserved evidence to the policea mission that Lyle must prevent, even if it means taking up his old habits as well.
Is Simpatico a simple revenge thriller, or a parable of nemesis and atonement, invoking divine punishment meted out upon the unrepentant? Since Sam Shepard is its author, we may never knownor is it important whether we do. What is important is that every participant in this summer busman's holiday for artists employed elsewhere during the year, convinces us, for every riveting moment of their allotted 160 minutes, that they know, and furthermore, that they care, very much, about each step leading to its uncertain outcome. When you get that kind of urgency rushing at you from barely arm's-length away, it can't help but command empathyhey, the next significant event might fall into your lap.
Of course, it helps that the dream-team assembled by returning Chicago director Dado boasts resumés testifying to their expertise in this brand of total-immersion portraiture. Foremost among them are Michael Shannon, a rising star since his teens, and firefighter-turned-thespian Guy Van Swearingen, who together have delved the intricacies of manly-man intimacy in this alley storefront since the company's beginnings. They are flanked by likewise distinguished alumni Jennifer Engstrom, Mierka Girten and Doug Vickers, all delivering the goods that for 20 years has made Red Orchid a port-of-entry for international playwrights on the brink of discovery.
The palpable excitement generated by this communal bond elevates Simpatico above a vacation project for actors looking to refresh their chops on home turf to a master class in ensemble dynamics so intoxicating that it's a privilege just to be in the room with it. The entire run may be sold out, but the wait in the stand-by line is worth it.