Playwright: Paul Michael Thomson
At: The Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood Ave. Tickets: $15; TheStoryTheatre.org .Runs through: Aug. 12.
A current of excitement ran through Heartland Studio on Leave Me Alone's opening night.
This world premiere is the inaugural production of The Story Theatre, a company whose mission is "to pose questions, rather than supply answers." Playwright Paul Michael Thomson is a founding member, as well as a produced playwright and Chicago actor. His contemporary take on Chekhov's Ivanov poses fascinating questions about mental health, queer identity and modern politics. If only Thomson had taken those questions one step further, and not relied on passion to see him through.
The program supplies Ivanov's plot summary, but it's unnecessary to anyone with a passing familiarity with Chekhov's work. There's debt. Heartbreak. Dissatisfaction with life in general. And vodka. In Leave Me Alone, Nik Ivanov ( Sean Gallagher ) is a state representative up for reelection, stuck in an unhappy marriage to Anna ( Brenna Walsh ), whose Mormon family disowned her. Nik can't leave her because she's dying: in the original play, of tuberculosis, and in this adaptation, of an unnamed disease. Not only is Nik deeply in debt, but he's interested in his lender's 20-year-old son ( Jordan Dell Harris )very interested.
Thomson and I both love Chekhov's gallows humor, reliable archetypes and deep philosophies behind everyday mundanity. Leave Me Alone is Thomson's baby, and it shows in every gentle music cue, stolen kiss and hidden gun that will inevitably fire. Thomson and director Matt Bowdren take Nik's emotional struggles seriously, even including resources for suicide prevention on the back of the program. Thomson's intelligent writing is on full display in one-on-one scenes between Anna and her compassionate doctor ( Ayanna Bria Bakari ), as well as Nik and his secret lover. Thoughtful Chekhovian details abound.
Sadly, these strengths can't overcome the play's considerable weaknesses. Nik's uncle-in-law ( Michael Kingston ) is a bombastic baby-boomer stereotype who's so over-the-top, he's distracting. Also, for a play whose tagline is "like … Ivanov, but gayer," Nik's journey as a closeted queer man feels remarkably flat, only fully present in his scenes with his lover. Instead of Chekhov's famous character asides, Thomson uses quotes about love and death delivered to the audience, which completely detract from the story. Leave Me Alone has many true moments, but feels like a second draftalmost but not quite ready for prime time.