Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Thanksgiving Play
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
By Richard Green

Also see Karen's review of Judgment Day

Audrey Francis, Paloma Nozicka,
Nate Santana (standing), and Tim Hopper

Photo by Michael Brosilow
Halfway into this play, everyone on stage is covered in blood, like Oedipus, or the victim of some other hideous stage curse. But The Thanksgiving Play, which premiered in 2018 at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, is so damned funny and so wildly inappropriate that it becomes irresistible. The 90-minute comedy spins out of control, yanking the guts out of our current political correctness. And frantic new forms of absurdism rise from the old, in the current production at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The transcendently funny play was written by Larissa FastHorse and is directed into a state of near-constant panic and invention by Jess McLeod.

It's the craziest, most up-to-date comedy you'll see this year, as everyone of us seems to face the threat of some personal, Stalinesque purge over the tiniest infractions of identity politics. And it's impossible to sidestep all the modern political landmines as a quartet of theatre people devise a new play for school kids about the pilgrims and Indians Native Americans.

That minefield comes wrapped up in lots of hilariously genuine empathy, seemingly demanded by the general concept of diversity, equity and inclusion. DEI is not specifically the villain, but it turns us into fools, as though the secret police were listening around every corner. There's also a wildcard outsider on stage to relieve the burden of infinite respect, in the form of a beautiful actress from Los Angeles. She first presents herself as Native American named Alicia, played to winsome perfection by Paloma Nozicka. But her story presents just one of the many absurd complications.

The phrase "erased presence" flies by a few times in very delicate and oblique reference to the mass murder of American Indian tribes, in the process of colonization. But when it comes to great theatre, subtle euphemisms are no match for wild symbolic violence–as we see in a jaw-dropping, bloody game of Thanksgiving Day football, played on stage with a couple of severed (rubber) heads. It's insane, as history does battle with the present.

At the center of it all is a bright young woman named Logan (Audrey Francis), an idealistic director who's cobbled together a bunch of financial grants to put on a new socially conscious holiday play for children which as yet remains unwritten, but which she has promised will run 45 minutes in its final form. That's why they gave her the money.

Gradually, the cruelties of life and a horror of cultural insensitivities put us into a spin. Steppenwolf Co-Artistic Director Audrey Francis is terrific as Logan, brilliantly frozen (at one point) in the face of temptation, and her own identity crisis. The whole legacy of the world of theatre seems to rest on her shoulders as she wobbles atop the jiggling zeitgeist.

Nate Santana is a subversive comic delight as Jaxton, and Tim Hopper is smart and a bit heartbreaking as Caden. Mr. Santana plays the street performer, and Mr. Hopper a history teacher. They've landed the other roles in this work-in-progress, which turns into something quite different by the end. And both actors master the comical terror of an entirely new kind of non-gendered, non-Eurocentric Big Brother.

All four of them ratchet-up the absurdity of our idealism, even when it's irreconcilable with our actual history, on a second-by-second basis: whether as pilgrims, or fools, or blood-soaked holiday football players.

The Thanksgiving Play runs through June 2, 2024, at Steppenwolf Ensemble Theater, 1646 North Halsted Street, Chicago IL. For tickets and more information, please visit

Logan: Audrey Francis*/**
Caden: Tim Hopper*/**
Alicia: Paloma Nozicka
Jaxton: Nate Santana**

Production Staff:
Director: Jess McLeod****
Scenic Designer: Andrew Boyce***
Costume Designer: Raquel Adorno***
Lighting Designer: Keith Parham***
Sound Designer: Tosin Olufolabi***
Violence Designers: R&D Choreography
Intimacy Consultant: Jyreika Guest
Music Director: Kary Danielson
Engagement Curator and Cultural Consultant: Dillon Chitto
Vocal Coach: Kate DeVore
Creative Producer: Patrick Zakem
Production Manager: Elise Hausken
Casting: JC Clementz, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Christine D. Freeburg**
Assistant Stage Manager: Kathleen Barrett**

Artistic Directors: Glenn Davis*, Audrey Francis*

Executive Director: E. Brook Flanagan

* Denotes Steppenwolf Theater Ensemble Member

** Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association

*** Denotes Member, United Scenic Artists Local 829 of IATSE

**** Denotes Member, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society