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by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Kia Corthron. At: Eclipse Theatre Company at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: $30. Runs through: Aug. 20

If Kia Corthron weren't writing in 2017 about 2017, it would be easy to imagine her plays ranking alongside the gritty portraits of life among the underprivileged found in the Social Realism movement of the 1930s. Indeed, the tone of this Eclipse Theatre world-premiere production, with its parable of a fundamentally good man trapped in a cruel faceless universe, reflects a period ambience recalling Sidney Kingsley, Lillian Hellman and Clifford Odets.

Our hero is Tremaine "Tray" Harris, the 19-year-old father of a baby daughter, both currently living with his retired grandfather while working a minimum-wage job, pursuant to marrying his child's flighty mother. One night, Tray accepts an invitation to a party with his former high school chums, where he is caught in a police raid with two joints in his pocket. Since this is his third arrest following similarly petty infractions, his lawyer advises him to accept the three-month sentence; however, Tray demands a jury trial—which sends him to prison for three years. During his incarceration, neighborhood drug peddlers hide cocaine in grandfather Dez's house, leading to the property's impoundment. The intrepid protests of its owner leads him to defiant extremities eventually driving him onto the streets—and this is just the first act.

In order to fully acquaint us with the contradictions of a seriously flawed legal system exacerbating the hardships it purports to remedy, Corthron's pilgrims are obliged to endure their agonizing trials to the very end, Tray's long struggle to re-establish his citizenship despite his felony record is aided by corporate best buddy Dubby and activist attorney Gina ( who also guide us through the welter of statistics and factual data packed into the text ).

Corthron's righteous anger refuses to indulge audiences anticipating a dryly didactic talking-heads docudrama, however—nor is she wiling to traffic in Dickensian pathos for playgoers eager for a good cry over helpless innocents. While her characters have their moments of crisis, they retain their resourceful vitality to persevere in their resistance to despair. By the time their fortunes turn toward reconciliation, if not reparation, the cast assembled by director Aaron Todd Douglas has so ensured our emotional investment in their victory over injustice that we initially hesitate when confronted with the resolution, lest our relief turn out to be inspired by another futile jail-cell dream.

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