Randy and I saw The Sparrow fly on Saturday night. Magic is happening on the Apollo Theater stage and I'm not just talking about the cool tricks of Emily Book, the play's supernaturally empowered protagonist. The House Theater's wonderful play casts a powerful spell.
"Mysterious stranger comes to town" is one of the archetypical scenarios of drama. So Emily Book's return to Spring Farm, Illinois, just this side of Smallville, by way of dear old Shiz, feels satisfyingly familiar. The graceful Carolyn Defrin, plays this tortured outsider turned small town hero turned misunderstood villain, with confidence and vulnerability.
The play’s pleasures, and there are so many, are most often about cool stagecraft, innovative movement, good writing and flights of the imagination. A mother literally carries around her grief for a lost daughter in her arms. A basketball game is fully, thrillingly realized on a stage not much bigger than the key. There’s a nail-biting rescue from the rafters, enacted safely on the floor, that you totally believe. A momentary glimpse inside a bus accident is horrifying and tints everything that comes after it. The thrilling dances are all about character, rather than skill and you really want to join right in. And just wait until you see the flying. It takes your breath away without smoke and mirrors.
Randy and I did pick apart the story a little on the way home – we thought there was one twist too few and the last surprise didn’t do justice to the main character we had come to love.
But it was great to see Lauren Vitz again. Vitz, who reminds me of a young Jodi Foster or Martha Plimpton, was memorable as a tomboy Tinkerbell in the 2002 House production of Peter Pan -- I can still see the red ribbon unrolling from her mouth after she drinks Captain Hook's poison. Here she doubles easily, as does most of the cast, as both a small town adult trying to do right by one of their own and as one of the town's teens who inherited a tragedy they can't understand.
Cliff Chamberlain received a Jeff citation for his role as biology instructor Mr. Christopher, who “puts a lot of thought into being the cool teacher” and he really gives the role his comedic and dramatic all.
I loved seeing one of the writers, Chris Mathews, hoofing it up on stage as the coach of the Sparrows, Spring Farm's perennially losing basketball team. You will crack up at his gentle and conciliatory half time "pep talk."