It is ironic how the stripping of women’s rights, banned books, and other atrocities live larger than life in Florida. The Sunshine State was the shiny tarpon leaping out of the water, blue water, and the Everglades beaming out of my ViewMaster. Jennifer Rumberger captures the other side of paradise without the allure of wealth or privilege in the world premiere of her play The Locusts by the Gift Theatre Company.
Cyd Blakewell plays Ella, an FBI profiler brought in from DC to Vero Beach, Florida, to track down a serial killer who is murdering and dismembering teenage girls. Ella is from Vero Beach and has a revulsion about going home for any reason; a horrific memory is hidden in her psyche. Blakewell is astonishing in this role. She embodies the hypervigilance that results from trauma in a fearless performance. She is bunking at her sister Maisie’s house in the part of Vero Beach that is manufactured homes tucked far away from the million-dollar estates. Brittany Burch plays Maisie in a brilliant performance as the sister left behind to handle the aftermath of their father’s death. Maisie is pregnant with her second child, terrified for her teenaged daughter Olive (Mariah Sydnei Gordon), and the caretaker of Willa aka Nana (Renee Lockett).
Blakewell and Burch are in perfect tune as siblings who had an ideal life snatched from them. Their mother killed herself in the garage when they were younger; they found her in the garage with the door closed just as they were heading to school. Their father died three years before the grisly killings started. Olive is now reaping that trauma as her classmates are getting picked off by the killer, and left in the orange groves and woods that once were magical places. Gordon is very good as Olive who wants to be a writer who terrifies people like her hero Stephen King. Renee Lockett is a Chicago theater veteran, and is wonderful as the deceptively feeble-minded Nana who talks in full sentences only to Olive.
Rounding out the cast are Jennifer Glasse as the tough no-BS police chief Layla. Glasse imbues the role with dimension and heart. Layla wants a better life for her son who is a gentle boy; her social life involves the church. Patrick Weber gives life to Robbie who made lieutenant at a young age and is chomping at the bit to catch the killer. Robbie’s character evolves from a brash kind of meathead to a traumatized man having to put dismembered parts into a body bag. Weber is humorous and then heartbreaking when his fear takes over.
The acting is sharp with excellent pacing. Gift ensemble member John Gawlik skillfully directs The Locusts. The action is focused and has that edginess that makes the audience hypervigilant as well. Scenic designer Chas Mathieu crafts a great looking set of weird pinks, dowdy furniture, and a cool retro sign welcoming visitors to Vero Beach. The omnipresent Spanish moss is made with torn linen around the top of the set. It’s a great touch. The whole set should move left so that all of it can be seen. Dialogue on the right side was muffled and the police station seemed like an afterthought. Props to scenic painter Trenton Jones for the garish color blends that give off mid-century gothic vibes.
Stefanie M. Senior does a great job of sound design with torrential rain and wind sounds. The sound of breaking glass in the diner scene still gives me goosebumps. Projections designer Parker Molacek adds texture to the rain and flashes of headlines for every murder. The lurid tabloid pictures and headlines serve as incentive for the killer. 24-hour streaming news and giant font headlines could stir up people to act on impulse and impede investigation. Ella points out how the attention feeds the killer’s urges and makes him bolder.
I enjoyed Rumberger’s dialogue and the comic bits that riff on Florida weirdness. The feminist angle is on point in a time when women are losing agency over their own bodies. The Locusts speaks to how women are considered disposable- not just by a freak serial killer but by “incel” types living in their parents’ basement, building intense hate through artificial channels. Politicians try to distract from how women are treated in America by pointing to other countries and some religious traditions. Women are disappeared in so many ways whether it is being told how we should look, how we should act, or politically silenced. The Locusts tells women that they should fight back in every way possible.
The story would benefit from some judicious trimming of dialogue. I like the bedtime stories that Olive tells Nana but some of those ‘once upon a time’ speeches could be used to develop other facets of the story. I think that the character Robbie gets short shrift by not further developing the mentor relationship with Ella. Olive and Nana’s relationship was intriguing as well. All in all, The Locusts is a very good play that could use a bit of trimming and set adjustment. I recommend it and it’s perfect for the Halloween season. I am still looking over my shoulder and hearing Ella say “balls and eyeballs.”
The Locusts by Gift Theatre is now playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. The show runs through November 19. Tickets are $25-$38 with discounts for students and seniors. Check out the Gift Theatre website for more information. Theater Wit asks that audience members wear masks inside the theater. Keep the actors and yourself safe.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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