Fresh Air, Part One – Hit the Wall

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This is the first of a two-part blog post.

While some theaters in the city are still going on their merry way with productions of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and, inexplicably, hoary chestnuts that should be put to rest already in heavily-padlocked vaults, the 2012 winter theater season in Chicago has already seen the emergence of several strong, new playwriting voices who feel like a comforting and bracing breath of fresh air. At Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep, the laudable annual showcase for emerging storefront theater companies, The Inconvenience is currently mounting Ike Holter’s fearless, vivid, attention-grabbing world premiere of Hit the Wall, about those who lived through the watershed event of contemporary GLBT history, the Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969. A little further north, the American Theater Company also has another terrific, provocative world premiere in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, tackling themes around assimilation and cultural identity among Muslim-Americans.  Both Hit the Wall and Disgraced have jawdropping, breathtakingly-spectacular central performances; both also, despite many, many good qualities, in my humble opinion, require some more work in the playwriting department.  These two remarkable plays still prove though that Chicago is quite the formidable incubator of new work; and if they’re an indication of how great theater will be in 2012, then all of us avid theatergoers will be quite the happy campers (Mayan Calendar Doomsday prediction be damned!).

Hit the Wall has probably received the best reviews of any play so far of this young theatrical year, and to some degree it is quite well-deserved.  I think Holter has written a complex, emotionally-devastating piece about various participants in the Stonewall riots (out gays and lesbians, crossdressers, cops, closeted married men, etc.), and has vividly depicted the sixties milieu of repression and bigotry, when you could be arrested in New York City if you weren’t wearing at least three pieces of clothing appropriate to your “gender”.  This is important writing, especially since I feel (and I’ve mentioned this before on this blog), with the “mainstreaming” of gay culture at least in the big cities like Chicago, that the current generation of younger gays don’t have as much of a complete sense of gay and lesbian history and struggle as my generation of gays. But Holter also writes scenes of immense emotional power such as the scene at the police station when lesbian Peg (a terrifically raw Rania Manganaro) is faced with the pleading of her sister (a heart-wrenching Mary Williamson) to go home with her and live a “normal life”, as well as scenes of heartbreaking poignancy and tenderness, such as the first meeting of drag queen Carson (the magnificent Manny Buckley giving an unforgettable central performance, a combustible mix of anger, fear, unapologetic pride, and grit) and newly-out Cliff (a sexy Steve Lenz).  

I just wish though that Holter tightened up some of the writing.  I would have wanted to see more scenes about the prejudices of the cop (a powerful Walter Briggs) and the emotional and psychological states of the closeted married guys who frequented the Village at that time (which was also discussed in the much-heralded documentary, Stonewall Uprising), and less around the bitchy repartee of the gays, which just felt like pandering to an audience who needed to laugh at, well, bitchy gays (although the scenes are extremely-well acted by Arturo Soria and Desmond Gray, both in tight short-shorts that have a life of their own). As a gay guy, I’m fine with not showing any cattiness or fabulousness or any other –ness that many gay-themed theater overflows with (goodness knows we have enough of these ness-es in our daily lives).  I’m fine with anger. With not-feel-good.  With struggle and with character-breaking perseverance.  Although the stylized dance sequences in the club are great, the shrillness of some of the scenes during and right after the riots is not (and the presence of a live band, although commendable, doesn’t really help things settle down).  Director Eric Hoff does a good  job in staging the scenes simply and letting Holter’s writing shine.

Hit the Wall is at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, until April 8.

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3 Responses to “Fresh Air, Part One – Hit the Wall”

  1. Ike H. Says:

    Hey Francis–

    Thanks for this review. Also: My name is Ike Holter, not Ike Holt. Thanks for coming man!


  2. Henry Says:

    I’m so glad Garage Rep is nutturing the future Steppenwolfs. I’m seeing Hit the Wall tomorrow!

  3. francis Says:

    Hi @Ike! Sincere apologies for misspelling your last name. So embarassing! Corrected. And thanks for writing a really, really important play, and also coming around my neck of the blogging woods.

    Hi @Henry. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the show, and thanks for supporting new work in Chicago (a topic, as you know, that I’m very passionate about).

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