Playwright: Ike Holter
At: 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th St., Berwyn. Tickets: $18-$22; 16thstreettheater.org . Runs through: May 5
Ike Holter's The Wolf at the End of the Block comes suffused with a palpable sense of unease. Before the first word is spoken, you know that something bad, very bad, has happened. Something awful enough to render you fearful for months to come.
When we meet Abe ( Alberto Mendoza ), there's blood streaming down his face. But even if there weren't, you'd know that Abe's world has taken a turn into territory no one enters willingly. By the time his opening monologue is over, you can practically see the raw, needle-sharp nerves jangling under his skin. His tone is clipped and disjointed, his eyes wide, his every gesture skittish.
Directed to maximum impact by Lili-Anne Brown, the 16th Street Theater production will leave you rattled. Set in Chicago, it's a chilling drama about the kind of crime that often goes unreported and leaves its victims to navigate their lives from a place of distrust and shame and rage.
For siblings Abe and Miranda ( Gabriela Diaz ), life isn't easy. He's supporting them both, working in a neighborhood bodega. She wants to be a reporter, and roams the city with a cross-body bag very similar to one carried by Frida ( Stephanie Diaz ), a star reporter who's made a career of exposing social injustices.
There are two more marvelously vivid characters in Holter's taut drama. Nunley ( Tony Santiago ) is the ( mostly ) affable owner of the bodega where Abe works. James ( Christian Isley ) is initially just some guy from another neighborhood, who winds up at the same bar as Abe in the final scene. It's a scene to make hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Racial tension pierces virtually every interaction. Abe and Miranda are Latinx; Nunley is an African-American. James is a lantern-jawed white man with a buzz cut and biceps the size of teacups.
Holter's dialogue is scathing in its exploration of the intersection of racism and privilege and violence. At one point, Abe explains exactly why he's wiling to go after his attacker( s ). It's a passage that's pure righteous heat, a call to arms in an world roiling with new wave white nationalism.
The cast is flawless. Gabriela Diaz's Amanda is a vivid, complex bundle of adolescent swagger and uncertainty. Stephanie Diaz's supercharged reporter is a blend of toughness and sorrow, both continual side effects from years on the job. As James, Isley exudes the kind of menace that makes you shiver like someone just stepped on your grave.
Then there's Mendoza's Abe. Mendoza anchors the drama with his fire-eyed anger and bravery.
With set designer Jose Manuel Diaz-Soto, Brown has created a shadowy Chicago street lined with neglect and poverty. We are very much in the world of noir here, a place where violence seems inevitable and escape unlikely. Throughout, Abe and Miranda are everyday warriors you'll be rooting for until lights out.