Thursday, March 1, 2012

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES - 'Oohrah!' by LiveWire Chicago Theatre (Steppenwolf Garage Rep)

(Photo by Ryan Bourque)

A single displaced ‘H’ away from “hoorah!” "oohrah!" for decades, has been the primal roar of the United States Marines Corps. This guttural, triumphant cry of masculinity ties together generation upon generation of Marine with an unbreakable bond of dedicated service, dignity, and piercing memory. But in Bekah Brunstetter's new play, "Oohrah" transforms from buoyant cheer into the sustained echo of a dying America – a landscape so figuratively war torn that a literal war zone is not only preferable, but a blissful escape. In their exhilarating Oohrah!, as part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's 3rd Annual Garage Rep, LiveWire Chicago Theatre unmasks America’s construction paper disguise of pleasant idleness, revealing a bitter, craving melancholy buried deep within.

LiveWire's Oohrah! is, as one would expect, a pressing exploration of war's effects on the American family, but more thought-provoking is the play's window into an oft-ignored socio-economic bracket, the modern day middle class - with a special emphasis on the word ‘middle’. Sure there are plenty of contemporary plays that deal with the lower and upper middle classes because, for obvious reasons, extremes are easier to dramatize. But that khaki caste that envelops the majority of Americans today seems to theatrically have long been left for dead. However, in Oorah!, Brunstetter has revived middle America with a deft hand and fearful familiarity.

There is a woeful empathy achieved in watching this unfulfilled band of suburbanites as they reach backward toward greater monetary prosperity, measuring their societal worth with microwavable party dips and the projected farce of contentment; performing surface tasks and receiving hollow rewards – the likes of which we humans mark our days by.
Brunsetter’s war is not merely an ideological war though. Set affront the backdrop of the Iraq War, two soldiers, their family, and friends are directly affected by our overseas conflicts. The play begins with Ron (a recognizably militant Josh Odor), a soldier, returning to his young wife, Sara, and teenaged daughter, Lacey (a prematurely mature Madeline Long)

But the house Ron returns to is unfamiliar and exhausted. Love is weighed down by obligation, and keeping up with the Joneses is top priority. Intermittent glimpses are given into the life of Pop Pop, the former Marine and grandfather, now suffering from crippling Alzheimer's Disease. Peter Esposito plays Pop Pop with not a hint of victimization, but with unrelenting stone cold courage.

Also living in the couple's home is Abby, Sara's sister, who, although engaged, has physically removed herself from Joel, her puppy dog fiancé. Calliope Porter's Abby is the most characteristically woebegone of the cast - having the overworked, underpaid aura of a woman with three jobs. The introduction of Chip, a frenetic Ian R. Tranberg, stirs up emotional, sexual, and patriotic confusion in the cookie-cutter, subdivision house.
In Oohrah! the playwright has found the bleeding-heart tragic in the otherwise banal: returning home to an unfamiliar face; being forced into a job you hate; and becoming sadly underwhelmed by your relationship. Most poignantly, Brunsetter’s pivotal climax plays up the well-known epic pressures of hosting a party.

The party in question is a 'coming out' party, otherwise known as a debutante ball, a quinceañera, or a bat mitzvah, depending on your region or culture. You don't see too many of these today, perhaps because they are viewed as immature indulgences during an economic downturn. But Sara still insists on giving her young, tom-boy daughter the ball she deserves. Brunstetter unleashes the unchained bedlam of a house party, smartly revealing its true psychological purpose. But among the many robustly entertaining moments are scattered textual issues.

Sara's frequent philosophizing of her dream of being a proper homemaker is, at times, much too bolded. "This is a sacred place of nice things," she says in defiance of her brutish husband before apologizing with rodent shame. That sort of verse-y language is tossed around the play in spades, distracting from the piece’s otherwise gorgeous naturalism. Such floral poeticizing appears in other characters' dialogue, always feeling not quite right.
Melissa Engle’s Sara is profoundly moving in strictly domestic scenarios, however her relationships with her husband and daughter come off as passively one-note. Engle has no problem interpreting a suburban existence, but that intangible power that motherhood and age carry is sorely absent.

Alongside the thick air of seriousness is a generous helping of uncomfortable humor, most of which is served up by LiveWire Chicago Artistic Director Joel Ewing as Christopher, the husband of Abby. Ewing is hilarious and wondrously lovable, making him the only character that the audience fully aligns themselves with. Christopher and Abby are the emotional center of this production, recalling the same unrequited adoration that so tearfully defines Masha and Kulygin of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Their story is the most watchable, and yet the most difficult to experience.

Speaking of difficult experiences, the intimidating width of Judy Radovsky and Anders Jacobson's set does not lend itself well to Steppenwolf's Garage, going a touch beyond the limited capabilities of the audience's peripheral vision. In such close proximity to the stage, there is no ideal vantage point, and you might find yourself craning your neck to view a scene. Director Brad Akin has taken advantage of the separation, though, multi-purposing rooms with neat unpredictability - most ticklingly turning a bedroom into Bed Bath & Beyond.

Oohrah! chugs along, gathering momentum until the final scene when it tentatively fades away without any sort of satisfying conclusiveness. The note on which the play ends is sensible, without a doubt, but it leaves the audience with thematic conjecture rather than suitable closure. Brunstetter would do well to limit a few of the play's thematic threads in favor of the piece's family backbone. A predominantly exciting and worthwhile production, Oohrah!'s last moment upstages its lovely characters with a gaudy thesis statement.-Johnny Oleksinski

LiveWire Chicago Theatre's 'Oorah!' plays as part of Steppenwolf Theatre's Garage Rep through April 8.