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‘If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet’ at Steep: Noting the footprint, but missing the people

Submitted by on Apr 23, 2014 – 11:04 am

Anna (Caitlin Looney) listens to some straight talk from her uncle Terry (Shane Kenyon). (Lee Miller)Review: “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” by Nick Payne, at Steep Theatre through June 7. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Anna is 15 years old, seriously overweight and disconnected from just everything: her mom and dad, her school mates, her life. But disconnection runs in the family. Anna’s parents are going through the motions of a marriage, and neither of them seems to actually notice her.

Then into their midst, in Nick Payne’s absorbing and painful play “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” pops the girl’s utterly lost soul of an uncle – whose calamitous form actually bears a glimmer of hope. It is a promise as fragile as it is paradoxical, and exquisitely framed by four superb actors in Steep Theatre’s taut production directed by Jonathan Berry

Terry (Shane Kenyon) explains to Anna's mother (Cynthia Marker) how he got a bloody nose acting on the girl's behalf. (Lee Miller)Nothing in Anna’s life is going right. Her obesity is borderline morbid. She is morose and finds comfort in stuffing her face with more junk food. The other kids at school, where her mom teaches, make her the butt of practical jokes. Her dad, a college professor obsessed with the planet’s ecological decline and the carbon impact of everything from jet travel to the canning of pineapple, cannot see the damage he’s inflicting on his own family. No one in this myopic clan, this dysfunctional cooperative, really sees the others.

Enter, out of the blue, Anna’s paternal uncle Terry (the crazily lovable, profoundly tormented Shane Kenyon). Terry’s a sort of roustabout who split town some years ago and now darkens his brother’s doorstep for the solid reason that he’s jobless and broke. Between his manic behavior and a vocabulary dominated by F-words, Terry tends to express himself in broad, halting emotional strokes. But he sees right away what’s amiss in Anna’s life.

Fellow outcasts, Anna (Caitlin Looney) and Terry (Shane Kenyon) find common ground. (Lee Miller)Kenyon’s hyperbolic but worldly wise Terry and Caitlin Looney’s taciturn, inexperienced Anna make a winning pair. In an especially touching scene, Looney’s suddenly bubbly Anna confides in Terry that she’s been asked out on a date. And just as suddenly, albeit uncomfortably, Kenyon’s footloose Terry becomes the responsible, aware parent – urging this innocent girl (her prospective date is older) to take it slow and, well, to take this little gift he pulls from his pocket.

Yet Terry is far from happy-go-lucky. In fact, he’s miserable, pining for the affection of an old girlfriend he’s come back to see. But the truth is that she’s just one more bridge he has burned in his destructive life. Even if the needy Anna offers Terry the chance to get something right, his fantasy about reconnecting with the girl he lost plunges him into anguish.

Anna's professorial father (Peter Moore) is often astonished, always preoccupied. (Lee Miller)Anna, by contrast, suffers in near silence. Looney gets maximum dramatic mileage from minimal lines, turning even stolid body language into an eloquent cry for attention, for caring. Real communication comes at a premium in this household, and Anna has long since given up trying. While her mom seems to be preoccupied with other people’s offspring at school, her dad, champion of the earth’s welfare, is all but oblivious to his wife and daughter.

As geeky tabulator of the planet’s ills, and full-time advocate of its salvation, Peter Moore is devotedly exasperating. Moore’s single-minded ecologist fairly breathes the message of his crusade. He can recite statistical data on the deleterious effects of every process of our daily lives, but when it comes to addressing the needs of his family, he fumbles and stammers.

Cynthia Marker, as his quietly neglected wife and Anna’s distracted mother, offers a serious, if perhaps cheerless woman who seems to have a grip on her own life but never finds time for her sexually awakening daughter. She puts up with her committed husband – anyway to the limit of his plausible obsession.

Within the tiny arena of Steep’s playing space, Nick Payne’s concisely crafted portrait of four characters in search of something – the It of the title – makes a penetrating, disturbing impression. And director Jonathan Berry’s adept use of Chelsea M. Warren’s compact, tiered set pulls us heart and mind into lives that are bruised and scarred, but not beyond redemption.

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  • John Ross says:

    Steep Theater is quite a little treasure in Chicago…it’s what helps make this a great theater town. A fine neighborhood stage for an urban audience…NYC…move out of the way!

  • John Ross says:

    Steep Theater is quite a little treasure in Chicago…it’s what helps make this a great theater town. A fine neighborhood stage for an urban audience…NYC…move out of the way!