Review: At Steppenwolf Theatre, The Thanksgiving Play Fails at Satire, Succeeds at Silliness

The American theater business and society in general offer plenty of opportunity for criticism of "wokeness" and efforts to satisfy all sides—both in the arts, in other nonprofits and in business. The Thanksgiving Play now on stage at Steppenwolf Theatre tries to tell one of these stories—about the violent history of our treatment of Native Americans—as a satire, laden with silliness. But satire needs more wit and less slapstick humor Although The Thanksgiving Play offers plenty of laughs, the play does not succeed as satire.

With that caveat, if you're looking for an evening of entertainment, by all means, see this play.

The Thanksgiving Play, written by Larissa FastHorse and directed by Jess McLeod, is the story of a grade school theater teacher and three collaborators devising (in theater argot) a revolutionary new kind of Thanksgiving pageant to honor our Native American friends; this is after all Native American Heritage Month. What this group of well-meaning people learns is that they're stuck in white American limbo without any Native Americans to honor. 

(Front) Nate Santana and Paloma Nozicka with (back) Audrey Francis and Tim Hopper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The play is a fast-paced  90 minutes with plenty of guffaw lines and some loopy musical interludes. The "Ten Days of Thanksgiving" song, for instance, clearly should have been reduced to at most "Five Days of Thanksgiving," which would have meant five fewer days of goofy faux Native American props being hauled on stage. 

This 2015 work by playwright FastHorse, herself Native American and a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, has so many goofy laugh lines that they get tiresome. Most of the humor is based on a few facts: 

Pageant director Logan (Audrey Francis as the frazzled theater teacher) treads lightly because she’s afraid of losing her job; she’s already been criticized by parents and a petition to fire her is circulating. She has received half a dozen grants to fund this project—including the Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art grant.

Historian/adviser Caden (an earnestly funny Tim Hopper) wants to be sure the presentation of harvest feasting is historically accurate, even hoping to hark back 4,000 years. The fourth collaborator is Jaxton (Nate Santana), a street performer and yoga guy, who has learned all the politically correct lingo. He has a close personal relationship with Logan. 

Audrey Francis and Nate Santana. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

And finally, Logan has hired Alicia (Paloma Nozicka), an experienced actress, because she has Native American heritage. But Logan is shocked to learn that heritage only extends to Alicia having a Native American headshot taken, where she wears braids and a turquoise necklace. Alicia (Paloma Nozicka) is really just a girl from L.A. whose family spent Thanksgiving eating turkey and watching games. “Games? Can we learn about these games with you, as a cast?” Logan asks urgently, thinking that the family practiced Native American recreation. “I guess,” Alicia says. “I think the Chiefs are playing Monday night, right?” “Wait, football?” Jaxton says. “Sure,” Alicia says. “What do you watch?”

The entire course of the play is spent working through ways to devise that revolutionary Thanksgiving pageant, ultimately without Native Americans. For one scene late in the play, the actors enter wearing white shirts, which makes the major activity of that scene more dramatic. As its primary element (fake blood) drenches everyone’s hands, faces and clothes, the action suggests the actual violence perpetrated upon Native Americans throughout our history.

In the welcome note in the evening’s program, artistic directors Audrey Francis and Glenn Davis acknowledge that Steppenwolf fits the profile of the type of theater that inspired the play. And it’s not just theater that is being satirized here. Many sectors of society could be subject to the same criticism for going overboard in wokeness. But beyond the silliness is the powerful and legitimate need to make up for centuries of brutality and discrimination based on race snd gender that demands such change. 

Audrey Francis, Paloma Nozicka, Nate Santana and Tim Hopper. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Satire and humor are difficult to evaluate because they are subjective, probably more so than other forms of theater. What you think is funny, I might think is eye-rollingly boring. The audience for The Thanksgiving Play found a lot to laugh about at the performance I attended. But that doesn’t mean it succeeds as satire—or theater.  

The play is performed in the round, so actors can enter through four different entrances. Director McLeod keeps everything moving briskly and  Andrew Boyce (scenic design), Keith Parham (lighting design) and Raquel Adorno (costume design) get credit for the colorful and flexible setting. Francis and Hopper, both veteran Steppenwolf ensemble members most often seen in dramas, get to show off their comedy chops.

The Thanksgiving Play continues through June 2 in the Ensemble Theater at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1646 N. Halsted St. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $20-$86 for performances Tuesday-Sunday. 

For more information on this and other plays, see 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.