Regional Reviews: Chicago
In the first 15 minutes or so, director Steph Paul invisibly shoves a young couple around, into one tiny little patch of lighting after another on a darkened arena stage at the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company. But, in doing so, she also unleashes a series of intense blackout scenes, played out between two undocumented kids inside of desperate doorways and alcoves, just beyond the relentless glare of a hostile government.
It nearly normalizes something hideous in their lives. Pulitzer Prize winner Martyna Majok's (Cost of Living) new play likewise chases them both through a bracing psychological maze. Fresh in its sense of danger; classical (in the broadest possible sense) in its romantic twists and turns.
It is provocative in the journalistic sense, as two very un-tween tweens (at first) grapple with growing up in a story beginning in New Jersey in 2001. They struggle for stability, having been brought in to America as small children and left (or conspiring to be left) to stumble forward together into adulthood. But we are thrilled and delighted and heartbroken (in the romantic sense) over and over again in this 95-minute play.
Sanctuary City reminds us that theatre has probably saved more relationships than counseling, when you think about all the grueling perseverance you come to expect, watching love bloom under hot stage lights. The art form seems to beseech us: how can you not white-knuckle your way through another harrowing relationship complexity, if only to get to the next beautiful plateau?
Grant Kennedy Lewis plays "B," who is (by the middle of the play) a high school student working late nights to help his mother. And Jocelyn Zamudio plays "G," whom he's known since third grade. At lights-up, she has climbed his fire escape and begs to be let in for the night to escape an abusive stepfather-figure. In this particular onstage configuration, she's the chaos agent and he's the reliable one, at least in the first half.
And there's excellent work from Brandon Rivera, as a young student lawyer with many questions. It's always shocking to me that two or three characters on stage for just 90 minutes or so can stir up such a fresh new psychological ruckus–romantic and vicious and healing, over and over again.
Sanctuary City is terrific without being preachy or mawkish.
Sanctuary City runs through November 18, 2023, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Ensemble Theater in Honor of Helen Zell, 1646 N. Halsted Street, Chicago IL. For tickets and more information please visit www.steppenwolf.org.
* Denotes Member, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society
** Denotes Member of United Scenic Artists, Local 829 of the IATSE
*** Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association