Playwright: Ike Holter
At: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000; VictoryGardens.org; $27-$55. Runs through: Dec. 23
Meet Nina Esposito. She's just taken on a longtime alderman and won a seat in City Council by one vote. She's eager to stop the forces of rapacious gentrification and official social neglect that have led to school closings and unchecked crime in Chicago's 51st Ward, a.k.a. Rightlynd. She's fired up and ready to go.
Good luck with that.
Ike Holter's latest play bears the name of his fictional neighborhood, and is designed to be the first chronologically in his "Chicago cycle," which has already included acclaimed titles such as Exit Strategy and The Wolf at the End of the Block. In Esposito, he's created a character who feels like a cunning blend of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tommy Carcetti, the "reform" mayor from the HBO series The Wire, who finds himself sucked in by the same forces he campaigned against.
Rightlynd's biggest enemy is the Applewood Foundation ( embodied by the oily rep played by Jerome Beck ), which has been landing "urban renewal" deals throughout Chicago and pushing out small businesses. But as Monica Orozco's Nina quickly finds out, campaigning in poetry and then trying to govern in prose means disappointing your constituentseven if you're not making side deals with drug dealers.
Director Lisa Portes nimbly handles all the narrative devices Holter uses to create this tough, funny, scabrous and sorrowful world. These include dance sequences, comic asides ( Robert Cornelius as Robinson, the plainspoken owner of a Rightlynd auto-repair shop, gets a lot of zingers ), and even a terrific street-fight sequence ( created by violence director Jaq Seifert ) that goes from exhilarating to horrifying.
That tension between comic absurdity and grim reality doesn't always gel successfully here. In particular, the central relationship between Nina and ex-con Pac ( Eddie Martinez ) feels like it could use some more fire and pushback from Pac, who more than anyone else we meet here has suffered from the callousness and injustice of the status quo.
The alderwoman wins trust easily, including that of Benny ( Anish Jethmalani ), a reporter for the Daily News. ( Jethmalani, at times, seems to be channeling the mix of cynicism and hope embodied by the Daily News' most famous columnist, Mike Royko. ) But Nina herself doesn't always feel like someone deserving of that trust. She has passion, to be sure. But we don't see enough of her own roots in the community, other than her loyalty to her late mother's long-closed corner shop and her on-the-verge-of-being-closed old high school. What exactly is her base? What is her coalition? I don't think Holter is going for docu-realism here as much as allegory. Yet when Nina cries out late in the play about the community not supporting her, it's hard not to wonder "Who do you think your community is, exactly?"
Then again, that might be the cogent point Holter is makingand that political outsiders learn over and over. Winning isn't the hard part. Staying in power without losing sight of your goals is.