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THEATER REVIEW (Non)Fiction
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-08-26

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Playwright: Jillian Leff

At: The Right Brain Project at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave.. Tickets: TheRBP.org; $25. Runs through: Sept. 14

The Right Brain Project's publicity leads us to anticipate a bittersweet tale of romance undone by good intentions gone wrong, but within Jillian Leff's world premiere play lies a warning to artists and those foolish enough to fall in love with them.

We are first introduced to aspiring author Stefanie and CPA Michael. The former of these post-grad sweethearts, having established a literary reputation on her short stories, is now ready to attempt a full-length opus—and what better source of inspiration than the saga of her own devoted consort's escape out of oppression and his arduous journey to independence?

That saga, we gradually learn, began ten years earlier, when teenage Michael and his cousin Emma ran away from home, vowing never to return. "Home," in this case, was a quasi-religious community—oh, all right, a CULT—comprising a number of well-connected civic stewards discharging their duties incognito under the casuistic influence of their messianic pastor. After a long period of re-adapting to mainstream society, the fugitives have achieved a modicum of security—Michael looks forward to marrying his talented consort, while Emma is preparing to embark on a relationship with a female partner—but will the exposure of their history to public scrutiny, and the accompanying threat of reprisal by their former associates, force them back into hiding?

Storytellers proposing a work of fiction based in fact, featuring passages adhering closely to real-life events do well to delay publication until the people portrayed therein are long deceased—or, at least, until those living have given consent to their depiction in accordance with a literary concept. A wordsmith who fails to exercise reticence regarding shared confidences, in the naive belief that iconographical representation constitutes the greatest honor, risks legal action, at worst, and the censure of peers, at best.

Every writer has faced this dilemma at some point in their career. That said, Leff recounts her cautionary parable with clarity, efficiency and admirably guilt-free compassion. Kathy Kaity's direction likewise rejects rom-com cutesiness—not easy when one scene requires the cuddling couple to shotgun-kiss with mouths full of Twinkies ( intimacy direction by Sarah Scanlon )—keeping the action brisk and evenly paced for the 90-minute running time, as do the actors who confer dignity without a hint of condescension on their personae at all times.

The legend of King Midas tells of a monarch who wished for all that he touched to turn into gold, only to have his beloved daughter embrace him, with tragic results. Whether your own experience approximates that of the fabulist who views everything in the universe as material for their craft, or that of the hapless mortals who ultimately find themselves reduced to lifeless works of art, Leff's deceptively simple narrative has something to say to you.


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