It is perhaps no accident that Cocked, a play about many things, but chief among them gun violence, takes place in Victory Gardens Theater, which is located in the Biograph theater building at 2433 N.Lincoln. It is the place where over 60 years ago John Dillinger, a bank robber, was shot in the alley by FBI agents after seeing a gangster movie. This location of historical gun violence once again echoes with gunfire—although these are blanks meant only to awaken the audience from the sleepy lure of complacency and false security.
Cocked is part one of a trilogy, according to playwright Sarah Gubbins. It’s rare for a playwright to take on more than one social issue at a time with any success, my plus one companion pointed out to me after the play. Not only was the couple gay and dealing with lack of approval from family members, they were also biracial and grappling with the differences of how society treated them individually. Gang warfare and gun violence are addressed through Izzie’s (Patrese McClain) experiences as a reporter in the city trenches. Then there was the class gap between the couple and the uninvited rural relative, highlighting the huge differences of opinion between a successful city lawyer sister Taylor (Kelly Simpkins) and her working class brother with a past Frank (Mike Tepeli) who thinks his sister is living in a bubble. The topic of mental health was on the table too (the brother and neighbor). And lastly, the question of gun control was adroitly woven in to the entire scenario.
In her interview with Isaac Gomez in the play’s program, Gubbins explained her motivation for including so many social issues in one short 70-minute show, “Gun culture and violence is an extension of racial inequality and oppression and income inequality and the movement away from industrialization. It’s a response and it’s also a weapon and simple; guns are a very simple way of exerting control over one’s environment…” That said, her play does not preach or presume to take a stance in the way each of its characters so clearly does. Rather, it sets the scenario to allow the audience to draw their own conclusions and continue the debate.
With all of that controversial subject matter, the potential for a convoluted mess was high. But playwright Sarah Gubbins is a master storyteller and in director Joanie Schultz’s capable hands, the stellar 3 person cast recreated the microcosm of Chicago for us right in their meticulously designed and maintained Andersonville apartment. Partially, their magic was due to the dialog itself. It is full of tension filled battles—Frank has arrived uninvited and seems unable to leave–concocting projects to lengthen his stay. Taylor is intolerant of his presence and believes that her brother has sociopath tendencies. Izzie is stuck in the middle and tries to smooth things over, believing her girlfriend’s anger is exaggerated and doesn’t value family connection. Add to that mix a constantly barking dog, an ex-Marine neighbor who plays Call of Duty too loudly, long work hours and the usual couple squabbles and things heat up. The dialog runs from intolerance to full on debate about lifestyle choices—Taylor disapproves of her brother’s choices, and Frank thinks his sister is living in a yuppie bubble of delusion. Izzie finds Frank’s opinions compelling because her job as a reporter and her experiences as an African American have shown her the harsh realities of urban life that Taylor seems all too ready to deny from her comfortable perch in Andersonville. She is even reluctant to move when Izzie desperately pleads her case that she cannot live in the building with the ex-Marine who creeps her out and whose wrath she gleans from their few interactions. But Taylor’s control issues and seeming rational attitude unravel in the presence of her brother, revealing her as a flawed human too, so tightly wound that she is capable of justifying her own infidelity.
There are poignant moments, when lovers trust one another instead of squabbling, and brother and sister reach a truce—opening up about their shattered love lives. But those moments are all swept up in the maelstrom of the plot events as small actions and weaknesses lead to bigger problems. Debates over right and wrong, over safety, over values versus reality, they all crumble when Frank’s continually backfiring attempts to help accumulate to the point of horrifying danger.
Perhaps most surprising though are not the moments of tension, the adroit handling of sensitive topics, or the finessed dramaturgy of the overall production. It was those rollicking plot twists when the dialog made us gasp and laugh out loud—recognizing in the controversies our own complex family dynamics and relationship struggles. Siblings rolling on the floor in full on fight mode, sheer destruction of property when a home improvement project goes awry, struggles managing technological gadgets and all of the other mundane trappings of modern life gave the play moments of levity that made it accessible to everyone. In spite of the laughter, in the end, it was a gun that drove the plot forward as decisively as only a gun can. Its very presence creating division, tension, anger and broken trust as well as a false sense of security.
The conversations that Cocked evokes will be continued in the community with a series of public programs such as a post-show panel discussions, artist talks, spoken word performances, and diverse discussions on gender parity, gentrification, concealed carry laws effects on Chicagoans and collaborative performances from DePaul college artists.
Cocked is at Victory Gardens until March 13. Ticket prices range from $15-$60.