Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Little Bear Ridge Road
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
By Christine Malcom

Laurie Metcalf and Micah Stock
Photo by Michael Brosilow
To close its forty-eighth season, Steppenwolf Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of Samuel D. Hunter's Little Bear Ridge Road. Under the direction of Joe Mantello, Laurie Metcalf (Sarah) and Micah Stock (Ethan) sink their teeth into a family dramedy that is exceptionally nuanced and compelling.

In their program notes, Steppenwolf's artistic directors, Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis, note that Little Bear Ridge Road came into being as the result of a desire to bring founding members of its company back to the stage. Metcalf enthusiastically agreed and named Mantello as her "director of choice." Although the initial intent had been to produce something already extant in the American canon, commissioning a new work ultimately became the clear path to achieving their shared goals. Enter Hunter.

The story unfolds in rural Idaho over the course of two years beginning during the pandemic with the death of Leon Fernsby, Ethan's meth-addicted father and Sarah's brother. Although there is little love lost between aunt and nephew, they are thrown together by family circumstances, Ethan's lack of other prospects in the wake of a relationship implosion back in Seattle, and as it is eventually revealed, Sarah's cancer.

Such a synopsis is likely to prompt an eye roll and the certainty that if one has seen a dozen such "kitchen-sink" (in both the theatrical sense and in terms of throwing every possible tragedy at the characters) stories if they've seen one. But the play itself defies expectations. The characters are familiar, but not at all stale. Their challenges and conflicts are relatable, yet unique in their intersections. This is nothing like blue collar tragedy porn.

In keeping with the strength of the text, the staging is also thoughtful to the point of being exceptional, particularly for something so simple. The entire set (scenic design by Scott Pask) is a circular stage covered in nondescript grey carpet. In the center is a tannish, overstuffed faux leather couch with recliners on either end and the kind of complex fold-down center seat that instantly communicates that this constitutes the only version of luxury that Sarah, a reclusive nurse of the verge of being forced into retirement, would ever be interested in. Above the couch is a ceiling fan and light.

To accomplish the rare changes in setting, the actors easily swing the couch: to a slightly different angle to establish that we are now in Leon's living room, rather than Sarah's; to face entirely upstage so that the back of it becomes the bar at the Wagon Wheel, where Ethan is surprised to find himself on a date, rather than in the midst of a hook-up. The geometry, the movement of the lone set piece, and the omnipresent rotation of the ceiling fan all suggest the kind of cyclicality and inertia that traps everything from struggling humans to celestial bodies.

Heather Gilbert's lighting design and Mikhail Fiksel's sound design contribute to the deceptively minimalist and effective staging. Gilbert offers us the glow of the TV and the stark beauty of the stars in the middle of nowhere as the actors leave the confines of the set and venture into the black of the theater space, and thus the universe. Fiksel captures the nerve-wracking, yet diabolically company-keeping background chatter of bad television and voices that come to us from near and far.

The costume design by Jessica Pabst also manages to be remarkable, even though the three characters we primarily see on stage wear the same thing throughout. Yet, like everything about the show, there are subtleties that make immeasurable contributions to the whole. Ethan's independent bookshop tote tells us about the half-formed "away from here" identity he clings to, even as he becomes lodged in the gears of his hated hometown. Near the end of the play, as Ethan helps Sarah (or more likely, as Micah helps Laurie) remove her sensible, protective everyday clothing to strip down to the oversized white t-shirt that reads as a hospital gown, the moment that she leans on him, and he readily accepts the slight weight of her frail body, is poignant and powerful.

As strong as the play itself is, it is difficult to overstate how powerful the direction and performances are. Laurie Metcalf's command of dark humor and her quirky yet impeccable comedic timing are unlikely to surprise anyone familiar with her work in film and television, yet Sarah is no clone or knockoff of any of her unknown characters. She is rigid, closed off, miserably ill-equipped for human interaction, and yet funny as hell not because of these shortcomings, but in spite of them. She is also fiercely loving, deeply wounded, and Metcalf is unflinching in depicting the flaws that emanate from those wounds.

Micah Stock meets Metcalf's performance at every turn. From their earliest interactions, his Ethan conveys the resentment of Sarah he has carried for the two decades since he begged her to get him out of a broken home that had left him vulnerable to his addict father. Moreover, Stock's tense body language and guarded, awkward speech let the audience know immediately that this is no simple story of the kid who made it out being roped back into dysfunction. Rather, Stock's stilted body language and halting speech create a realistic portrait of a damaged individual who can neither go home again nor leave home entirely.

Of particular note is Stock's work in the climactic fight with James (John Drea). In too many similar works, the conflict would be heavy handed, one sided, and overly simplistic. Hunter deftly rises above this. Ethan levels the man he loves with devastating, precise blows; there's a painful truth to what he has to say about James's privilege and ignorance of hardship, yet Stock's performance makes it abundantly clear that it is the most damaged and self-sabotaging aspects of Ethan's "characters" that are wielding this truth.

The powerful performance by Stock does not work nearly so well without John Drea bringing James to life. The development of the relationship between the two characters in fits and starts is a fresh and welcome love story. Equally compelling, though, is the relationship that Sarah and James cultivate. Drea's chemistry with both Stock and Metcalf is impressive and these relationships are wonderfully rendered.

Although the stage time for Meighan Gerachis is brief (she plays Sarah's hospice nurse, Paulette, in addition to playing Sarah's friend Vickie via phone), her reading of the final scene of the first writing Ethan has managed in more than two years is powerful and wonderfully done.

Little Bear Ridge Road has been extended and now runs through August 4, 2024, at Steppenwolf's downstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit call 312-335-1650.