Halcyon Theatre’s world premiere of Callie Kimball’s play, Dreams of the Penny Gods, begins with a promising image. Thirteen-year-old Bug stands illuminated in candlelight, tying herself up in preparation for the Armageddon she’s attempting to invoke from an ancient Egyptian book. Combined with the play’s premise of a dysfunctional family living in a storage facility, Dreams of the Penny Gods promises to be quite an interesting night at the theatre. Unfortunately, Kimball’s exposition-heavy dialogue and repetitive arguments tend to bog down the arc of the play. Jennifer Adams’ direction—in which true moments of danger are few and far between—does little to solve these problems.
Bug (Caity-Shea Violette) lives with her assumed-mother, Kitty (Denise Hoeflich), in a storage unit that has been transformed into a makeshift home for the pair. While Bug practices Egyptian spells and works on building a hammock, Kitty and her Jehovian-Sister, Gloria (Shadana Patterson), rifle through other abandoned units for items to sell. When Bug’s invocation to raise the dead brings her dead father, Bobby (Ted James), into her life, family secrets are revealed and Bug’s world is turned upside down.
Unpacking the cumulative effects of generational trauma and humans’ capacity for behaving monstrously, this drama also explores religion and magic’s intersection with the search for personal salvation. There are some interesting parallels between Bug’s magic incantations and their perceived effect on her insular world, and the script brims with the potential for some truly menacing moments on stage. Kimball has created a detailed world; however, under Adams’ direction, much of this specificity is lost. Dreams of the Penny Gods’ potential is blunted by broad strokes of melodrama and poorly staged fights that fail to coalesce into an engaging or believable narrative.
That’s not to say that all is hopeless in Halcyon’s production. The design, in particular, does much to combat Adams’ general direction. Michael Chancellor’s set and Alec Long’s properties design combine to create a detailed array of storage units and junk. Even minor details, such as a hand-drawn picture of the Pyramids on a wall near where Bug sleeps, add up to create a lived-in environment with a deep history. Cat Davis’ lighting design adds texture and color to Chancellor’s set, while an overhead fluorescent light flickers occasionally to subtly reinforce Bug’s magic.
Played by Violette, Bug is the most three-dimensional character in the production. With a shrillness and physicality akin to a thirteen-year-old, she navigates the character’s roller coaster journey admirably. Smartly, Violette also manages to get a few laughs when casting magic without managing to undermine the reality of each spell’s potential. Of all the members in the cast, Violette seems to be the only one truly listening and reacting to others.
Work by Patterson and Robert N. Isaac (Bobby’s friend, Truck) is similarly expressive and each actor has some winning moments. It’s unfortunate then that Kimball firmly roots each of these characters in the “supporting” category, leaving them at the periphery of the narrative until it is useful for them to reappear. It’s also disappointing that, for a company “fiercely committed to making the stage as diverse as the city of Chicago,” these two actors are the only actors of color in Halcyon’s production, considering the minimal amount of stage time each actor gets.
Dreams of the Penny Gods features Denise Hoeflich, Robert N. Isaac, Ted James, Shadana Patterson, and Caity-Shea Violette, and runs through May 1st. The design team includes Michael Chancellor (set), Cat Davis (lights), Izumi Inaba (costumes), Tony Adams (sound), Alec Long (properties), and Victoria Apodaca (stage management).
Performances occur on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8p.m. and Sundays at 6p.m at Halcyon Theatre (in residence at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, 3253 W. Wilson Ave). Tickets are $20 for guaranteed advance admission or at no-cost through the Radical Hospitality program. For tickets and more information, visit click here or call 773-413-0454.