About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere of playwright A. Rey Pamatmat’s after all the terrible things I do delivers on the company’s promise to produce plays that “advance the national dialogue on sexual and gender identity.” Pamatmat’s work, exploring themes of forgiveness, gender roles and second chances, offers up a host of compelling questions that actors Lisa Tejero and Colin Sphar, led by AFT Artistic Director, Andrew Volkoff, dig into with commitment and honesty. As a result of their combined efforts, after all the terrible things I do is a highly polished and authentic two-hander brimming with humor, mystery and drama.
“Honesty can be difficult,” Linda (Tejero) tells Daniel (Sphar) early in the play, during a job interview. Linda is the owner of a small bookstore in an unnamed Midwest town, and Daniel, a gay writer and recent college graduate, has returned home to finish his first novel and start fresh with an unassuming job at his favorite childhood bookseller. The beginning of their relationship is amiable, but Linda’s words, combined with the play’s mildly direful title, serve as an omen of events to come. Over the course of the play’s hour-and-forty-minute run time, Daniel and Linda are forced to confront the harsh realities of their pasts, as secrets once hidden come spiraling to the surface.
Sphar and Tejero show considerable talent in crafting and grounding their characters. Sphar’s Daniel is fraught with passion and confusion, yet tempered with an eager charm that gives way to naive optimism. Tejero’s Linda is similarly multifaceted, capturing both a fierce maternal instinct to protect and a deep yearning for absolution. Each performance is infused with humor, and director Volkoff smartly mines the comedy in early scenes to help with each character’s likability. Volkoff stages the piece naturalistically, with real attention paid to letting the characters and their words carry the bulk of the story. He also isn’t afraid to embrace silence while pacing the storytelling, and some of the fullest moments on stage occur when Daniel and Linda communicate non-verbally. Even transitions between scenes are leisurely and give the audience time to breathe and reflect.
Sound designer Christopher Kriz’s original music fills such transitions, but doesn’t always advance the mysterious tone of the story. Most compositions stay contemporary and light, until a marked shift after a major revelation halfway through the play, when the songs become slightly more dissonant and more aptly capture the characters’ internal tensions and the story’s mysteries. Chelsea Warren’s scenic design is detailed and lived in, complete with towering wooden bookcases and a bulletin board advertising fall festivals and lost cats. The bookstore has a certain familiarity to it; I was reminded of Wicker Park’s Myopic Books when I first took a seat in the theater. While realistic, the height of the bookcases’ architecture also provides a wonderful canvas for expression in moments when Jared Gooding’s lighting design transforms the space with luminous blues and reds. Even subtle details like the three featured books on display downstage left (Deepak Chopra’s Path to Love, Anita Shreve’s Light on Snow and Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy) serve to reinforce the play’s concerns with love, memory and coming-of-age.
While each character is richly drawn by both playwright and actor, the focus of the story is a bit muddier, and at times it feels like Volkoff, Tejero and Sphar can’t help but play the ending. The play’s title is a reference to a line from poet Frank O’Hara, who serves as an inspiration for Daniel’s novel. That poem, much like Pamatmat’s play, is concerned with how the past informs the present, humans’ capacity for love and forgiveness, and the interconnected nature of both. Thematically, this all makes sense; however, the titular “terrible things” telegraphs to the audience the fact that these ordinary people may have darkness lurking within them long before the true mystery of the play begins. While not necessarily detrimental to the overall success of Volkoff’s production, there were certainly times where I–and other audience members whispering around me–seemed more alert to some of the clues in Pamatmat’s dialogue than would have been ideal. That isn’t to say that the play wasn’t still full of surprises. However, that alertness did take some of the edge off my experience, although it doesn’t entirely seem to be the fault of this otherwise capable production.
after all the terrible things I do is presented by About Face Theatre at Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont Ave.) March 18-April 10. Other production team members are Bob Kuhn (costume design), Jenny Pinson (props), and Dana Nestrick (stage manager). Performances run Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 7:30pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets ($20-35) are available online, by calling 773-975-8150, or at the Theater Wit box office.