To Catch a Fish, according to the supplemental program notes, was inspired by Chauncey Wright, a Milwaukee native unknowingly caught up in a web of illegal activity. Written by Chicago playwright Brett Neveu, the play is receiving its world premiere at Timeline Theatre, directed by Ron OJ Parsons.
The story here concerns Terry (Geno Walker), a young man who suffered brain damage as a child and as a result is a little too trusting of people who may not have his best interest in mind. Terry tools around Milwaukee on a beat-up trick bike, flitting from his girlfriend’s house to his grandmother’s back porch, all the while passing out flier for a newly opened pop-up clothing shop (he was recruited in a Walmart parking lot by some local bikers to spread the word, and is compensated by new shorts, smokes, and some much needed friendship). Along the way he catches up with his cousin, whom years ago used Terry and his bike to unwittingly peddle cocaine through the back alleys. Though he’s out of jail, reformed and has a steady job, Dontre (Al’Jaleel McGhee) still poses a threat to Terry’s safety, which is why his grandmother keeps close watch. All the while the audience and his loved ones are left wondering what’s really up with Terry’s new “crew,” and what’s the real deal with the neighborhood’s mysterious new “shop.”
But what begins as a sort of ‘day in the life’ of Terry quickly loses steam as the ambiguity of what’s actually happening doesn’t ever amount to much of a plot. Unfortunately, the mysteries surrounding the story are never quite as enthralling or sinister as playwright Brett Neveu hopes they will be, and when it is finally revealed who is duping whom and why, the specifics remain so unclear and the world built around us is rendered so small that I wasn’t so much shocked as I was bummed-out.
There also seems to be some unintentional inconsistency when it comes to how our main character is perceived by those around him. It is clear from moment one that we are dealing with a man of compromised mental faculties, but we are meant to believe some characters are unaware of this fact; they assume Terry is just a shy man from the neighborhood. Oftentimes Terry is treated like a child, only to be treated like a fully capable, consenting adult a moment later. Given the clearly affected performance and Terry’s stilted speech I found this hard to track, especially when a late-play revelation hinges on this very ignorance. Where maybe it was meant to land as tragic oversight, I was left scratching my head.
I don’t want to reveal too much here, but the play boils down to a nasty bit of entrapment. Underneath that there seems to be a drama about brutalized hearts, and the guilt that comes from past injustices committed against the ones we claim to love the most. The script makes a case for these damaged adults, spending whole scenes deconstructing the generational traumas that have left this family fractured and bitter and wayward. There’s animosity and inevitable reconciliation, but it’s often not very compelling. The brief moments when characters not only explain but show us their capacity for contradictions and malice manage to be more revealing—such as when Dontre confesses to Terry that he resented his younger cousin for being so helpless, for needing so much assistance. He tells Terry how he often wished he could leave him behind as a child. It’s a heartbreaking moment, because it’s clear that Terry understands this, and is in turn rendered even more helpless than before.
The production is peppered with some earnest performances throughout, anchored by Regina Garcia’s evocative city set and Mike Durst’s understated lighting. And I was particularly moved by the final moments of Fish, where director Parsons and crew manage to land on a note of sudden pathos (I was reminded of the famous fate of Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men). But even so, I left the theater wondering how powerful it might’ve been had the rest of the play built to such a moment with clear stakes and concise storytelling. I think Brett Neveu might have an effective, socially conscious thriller beneath the surface of this new play, but I don’t believe he’s caught it just yet.
To Catch a Fish runs through July 1 at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Tickets are $40-54. Buy them online or call 773-281-8463.