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A CurtainUp Review
The Sparrow

We all know you can fly.— Thomas, reassuring Emily that her return to her childhood home will be a great success.

Carolyn Defrin  in The Sparrow
Carolyn Defrin in The Sparrow
(Photo: Michael Brosilow)
At the beginning of The House Theatre of Chicago's thrilling new production of The Sparrow orphaned teenager Emily Book is tentative about going home to Spring Farm, Illinois. She's not sure if she really wants to return, or if she'll be wanted when she gets there. She is the only survivor of an accident that killed her entire elementary school class and the town has yet to recover from the tragedy. Not only must Emily face the uncomfortable significance of her position, but she must also figure out how to survive as a new high school senior. An old man, likening her return to that of a bird that must leave its nest, telling her that "we all know you can fly."

The adults of Spring Farm are determined to welcome Emily despite their own grief. The McGuckin family takes her in, though her integration into their small circle is uncomfortable and slow. At school, her champion is the young, handsome biology teacher, Mr. Christopher. He believes in her, offering academic guidance with the best intentions. Her classmates, however, show less faith, and Emily is treated with prickly curiosity. Well-meaning Mr. Christopher pairs her with school superstar Jenny McGrath, and the two girls interact with reluctant friendliness. Called the brightest student in the class, blonde, pretty Jenny literally shines next to dark-haired, black-clad Emily. All of this would be a lot for any normal girl to deal with. However, Emily Book is not a normal girl.

Under stress or when faced with heightened emotions, Emily can make things happen. She can fly, move heavy items with her mind and animate objects. Whenever she uses her powers, we hear the crackle of electricity and see her bathed in an eerie orange glow. Once publicly revealed, Emily's powers quickly take her from outcast to hero. Though she celebrates her abilities, she soon learns how harmful losing control can be. Suffering from the sudden shift in attention, Jenny confronts Emily about the mysterious accident and her shadowy past, with dangerous results.

The play's three main characters struggle with conflicting aspects of their personalities and it is this inner conflict that makes them so interesting, and so painfully human. Carolyn Defrin, as Emily, manifests a social awkwardness that just barely hides the rage that simmers below her surface. Defrin offers us glimpses into that darkness and yet joyfully blossoms when Emily's life is at its peak. Paige Hoffman's rigidly perfect Jenny vacillates between self-composure and overwhelming insecurity with the genuine misdirection of a confused teenager. As Mr. Christopher, Cliff Chamberlain's emotional upheaval is palpable. He teeters between being the figure of authority and being just as lost as everyone else.

While the performances by the principal actors are excellent, it is Nathan Allen's deft use of the ensemble that gives the production its vitality. The nine-member ensemble portrays both classmates and adults in the community. Distinct costuming helps to differentiate the two groups and the physical changes that the actors undergo for their separate roles are incredibly effective. Johnny Arena (a jock and a dweebish sheriff) and Michael E. Smith (a hip music lover and the taciturn Mr. McGuckin) are nearly unrecognizable from role to role. The men in the ensemble seem to be more successful in their transformations than the women, but this may have more to do with the wider range of characters offered to them.

The House Theatre credits the words of the The Sparrow to Chris Mathews and Jake Minton, with a concept by director Nathan Allen and more general creation attributed to The House. Because there are so many contributors, it seems only natural that there would be many methods used to communicate the story. In addition to the text, video plays an important role, as do movement and music.

The play is punctuated with vibrant dance numbers that showcase the students' active lives. Tommy Rapley's choreography brilliantly highlights the characters' personalities and their relationships in ways dialogue never could. In the beginning it emphasizes Emily's isolation and as she finds a place for herself she is able to find her own rhythm in the dance routines. The energy of the choreographed scenes keep the audience engaged in a script that, if left on its own, might not hold up to intense scrutiny. Because the townsfolk don't dance we don't connect with them as strongly making their characters more static and making it clear that Spring Farm is a community that is focused on the young.

Kevin O'Donnell's incidental score is beautiful and haunting, mirroring the frenetic action of gym class dodgeball and adding additional layers of heart-wrenching sweetness to the lovely solo dance that is Emily's ecstatic first flight. Like the choreography, the music expresses emotions without requiring words.

The scenic details of the town are conveyed through framed photographs and model houses held by actors. Video projections created by film designer Lucas Merino enhance our tour through Spring Farm. It's also through these short videos that we learn the truth about the town's tragedy. Sets consisting of portable lockers and classroom desks make the high school locations are recognizable (Mr. Christopher's overhead projector is an especially nice touch). Panels painted to show a cloud-dappled sky surround the entire performance space. All of the technical elements seamlessly complement the on-stage world.

According to the House Theatre's website, many of the remaining performances of The Sparrow are sold out, a testament to the adventurous spirit of both the performers and the creative team. The Sparrow is exciting, original and emotional. If you're lucky, you'll find a ticket.

The Sparrow
Playwright: Chris Mathews and Jake Minton
Directed by Nathan Allen
Cast: Carolyn Defrin (Emily Book), Paige Hoffman (Jenny McGrath), Cliff Chamberlain (Dan Christopher), Kat McDonnell (Joyce McGuckin, Evie Sullivan), Michael E. Smith (Albert McGuckin, Jonathan Simpson), Sara Hoyer (Charlie McGuckin, Elizabeth Gilbert, Carol Schott), Patrick Andrews (Mark Gilbert, Skye Thompson, Thomas), Stephen Taylor (Principal Jim Skor, Louie Nash), Lauren Vitz (Margaret Rosenthal, Phoebe Marks), Johnny Arena (Sheriff Albert Rosenthal, Brad Gomer), Jill Matelan (Tammy Adams, Shannon Crew), Dennis Watkins (Coach Gerald Adams, Stuart Edgerton)
Choreography: Tommy Rapley
Composer: Kevin O'Donnell
Set Design: Collette Pollard
Costume Design: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting Design: Ben Wilhelm
Sound Design: Michael Griggs
Film Design: Lucas Merino
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (with intermission)
The House Theatre of Chicago, at Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western, (773) 296-6024
From 1/13/07 to 2/24/07; opening 1/13/07
Performance Schedule: Thurs. - Sat. at 8pm, Sun. at 7pm; Matinee performances Sunday, Feb. 4, Sunday, Feb. 11, Sunday, February 18, all at 3pm
Tickets: $10-$22
Reviewed Kimberly Patterson, on January 26, 2007
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