Review: Steep Theatre’s Light Falls Unfolds a Panoramic Family Tragedy

Christine stands, spotlighted, center stage, and begins to tell her story. She’s blonde and fair, middle-aged, wearing a light blue coat that looks as if it might be too warm. During her long monologue in a Stockport, England, supermarket, she dies of a brain hemorrhage. We know exactly what happens because she tells us what she’s feeling and thinking as she shops and death approaches. Her husband and three adult children sense something unusual has happened, each in his or her own concerned or careless way, as they carry on their lives, with lovers and others. 

Light Falls is a sweetly tragic and stirring family story about death, loneliness, sexual betrayal and the meaning of time lost and found. Simon Stephens’ latest play, set in 2017 in the North of England, is being staged in a U.S. premiere by Steep Theatre. Robin Witt directs her sixth Stephens play for Steep.

Christine, played by Kendra Thulin, performs a quietly remarkable opening monologue and then appears in brief (ethereal?) visits to her family members as the life change becomes apparent to each of them. During the opening scene, Christine says, “Time does not move forward. We don’t live our lives in one direction. Everything we have ever done we are doing now. Everything we will ever do we have already done and we are still doing it and it is ongoing.”

Stephanie Mattos, Nate Faust. Photo by Randall Starr.

As if to prove his belief in time warps, Stephens’ script is made up of bits of dialog from single lines to intense exchanges, suggesting that these events are occurring simultaneously; Witt’s choreographic direction makes this work.  

Christine’s older daughter Jessica or Jess (Stephanie Mattos) sparkles with energy in her scenes, starting in her Blackpool flat, with her new mate, soon-to-be lover, Michael (a down-to-earth and charismatic Nate Faust); the couple develop a believable chemistry that makes you want to cheer for them. Son Steven, a frustrated law student (Brandon Rivera) meets his boyfriend Andy at an Durham outdoor café after Andy (Omer Abbas Salem) finishes a hectic day as an airline steward. They debate how much time they want to spend in their hotel room and how much touring the town. (August Forman will play Andy starting July 28.) In her Ulverston flat, daughter Ashe (Ashlyn Lozano) confronts her ex-lover Joe (Debo Balogun) about his child support payments for their young son Leighton. Their conversation becomes more and more heated.

Brandon Rivera, Omer Abbas Salem. Photo by Randall Starr.

Meanwhile, their father and Christine’s husband Bernard (Peter Moore) is setting off on a threesome with Michaela (Cindy Marker), a former lover, who introduces him to Emma (Susaan Jamshidi). They meet for drinks before going to their hotel room, but first they must eat. At a pub in Doncaster, Bernard, who says he is always hungry, perhaps symbolizing his anxiety (as Michaela tells him later), orders enough food for six people. 

Through these brief and often intense scenes, Witt creates a quilt of meaning, enhanced by Sotirios Livaditis’ inventive set and Brandon Wardell’s imaginative lighting. The set at first seems to be just a few platforms of varying sizes and heights, but wall-mounted pieces of furniture, each topped with a small vintage table lamp, create changing moods. Each family group lives its life, lighted in turn, as the moment of change—and their own moments—approach and pass. Often they are all on stage at once and lighting defines action. It’s a brilliantly written and staged panorama.

The ensemble. Photo by Randall Starr.

Stephens’ script is an homage to the industrial North of England; thus the Steep program includes the names of towns where scenes takes place and I’ve included them here. In England, traits of northerners are typically described as “straight-talking, grit and warmheartedness, as compared to the supposedly effete Southerners.” For most Americans (and for me), this regional distinction doesn’t have much meaning beyond the play. I include it to provide context for the music—“The Great North Road” (music by Thomas Dixon and lyrics by Robin Witt and Thomas Dixon); we hear it throughout the play and the cast performs it in the last scene. The North of England is Stephens’ home region.

Stephens’ many plays include WastwaterBirdland, Sea Wall, Harper Regan, Motortown and Bluebird. He also adapted The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. He is an associate of the Royal Court, London, and Steep Theatre.

Light Falls by Steep Theatre continues through August 13 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Running time is 2.5 hours, including one intermission. Tickets are $10-$40 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Proof of vaccination is required and masks must be worn while you are in the theater building.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.