Interrobang Theatre Project's 8th season's theme, "What is Truth?" may never have such a literal presentation as it does in the company's Chicago premiere production of Lee Blessing's latest play, "For the Loyal." Over 80 intense minutes, Blessing and director James Yost take us on a wild and emotional ride through alternative visions of reality precipitated by a Penn State-like revelation of coaching-level child molestation at a major university. Told through visions, dreams, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flash-sideways to alternate versions of what may or may not have occurred, "For the Loyal" is a perfect play for this moment in which we are suddenly paying far more attention to the victims of abuse than ever before. It may be Blessing's challenge to sift through the play to find the truth, but he is also challenging us to consider what we might do if placed in a similar position as Mia, the main character of this play: when there is no "best course of action," what exactly should a caring person do?
It's Mia's provocative dilemma that lies at the core of the play, and Sarah Gise's performance is passionate and powerful while at the same time remaining vulnerable: a nifty trick that not many actresses could pull off as well. Mia has been placed in this position by her husband, Toby (Matthew Nerber), an aspiring football coach under Coach Carlson (Rob Frankel). Toby has witnessed Carlson in a compromising position with a young boy (Richard David) and, though head coach Hale (Josh Zagoren) orders him to keep it quiet, finds he has to break that promise and tell his very pregnant wife, shifting the burden of the dilemma to her shoulders. As she gets increasingly agitated about the possible coverup of this crime and Carlson's mere firing (instead of being brought up on charges that would protect other young boys in the future, like the one she is carrying), Mia finds herself alone against both her husband and his boss. Thus she takes matters into her own hands: in an action that seems almost absurdly overreactive but is explained as the play goes on, she shoots Coach Carlson.
This is where Blessing's fun begins, as time and reality begin to twist and turn until it is nearly impossible to tell what actually has occurred and what has not. We watch scenes with Mia in prison, speaking with a prison shrink, visiting with her now ex-husband Toby, receiving a very infrequent visit from her estranged son, concocting imaginary scenarios to show what would have happened if (she had called the police, she had told Carlson's wife, etc.), and—most of all—talking with the dead man himself.
While each of the other actors has great moments (Nerber's police station cave-in is brilliant: here is a man who knows he is throwing his wife under the bus to preserve his career, and the conflict is written all over his face; David gets a lovely scene in which he explains why victims of sexual assault rarely come forward while the assault is still going on; Zagoren gets double duty as Hale and as a police detective, each as hard-nosed as the other, and is perfect for both characters), this ultimately comes down to Gise and Frankel. Frankel, a tremendously likable and powerful performer, is here asked to do something very much against type: play a sleaze. At first, Carlson denies the allegations despite having an eye-witness against him; after he is dead, though, he has no reason to hide anything anymore, and we see and hear the twisted morality of the child molester in all of its depraved horror. Even as he explores his own dark hunting techniques, he somehow manages to turn it all around: the boys like it, he tells Mia, so it's really OK. (Indeed, one of the boys acknowledges that he does in fact like it, at least a little.) She is more evil than he is because she killed him.
Comparative morality is a huge aspect of For the Loyal, and Blessing pulls no punches. After all, he throws two pretty heinous options at us: child molestation and murder. And he makes the argument that the latter may be the only cure for the former. Gise is forced, in her no-holds-barred performance, to navigate the waters of this issue. Pulling that trigger changes her life; is it really the only thing she could do? Does she too belong in hell? Throughout the play, Mia attempts to justify her actions as anything other than extreme, and to an extent she succeeds: Blessing shows us that nothing else would ever work. But still, the intensity of the struggles Gise faces as she fights her way through the aftermath of Mia's action only increases with every effort to justify it. And in every case, she ends up alone, on the outside, looking in: the only person who believes that drastic action needs to be taken. The cost is clear: Mia makes it so when she tells the dream-Carlson that she has traded her life for his. And a late scene in which her son disowns her brings on a breakdown that has long been coming: who has she actually saved?
As Blessing winds and blends alternate realities throughout the play, we find ourselves asking Interrobang's thematic question again and again: what is the truth here? Since this is part of their RAW series, the tech is minimal, but Yost brings out the kind of performances from his actors that make it easy to immerse anyway. And in a glorious final silent moment, he allows Gise to remain alone onstage pondering her future, the look on her face speaking volumes. If you are a fan of great writing, powerful acting, and moral complexity, see For the Loyal. It will not disappoint you.
For The Loyal is now playing at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N Southport in Chicago, until February 4. Th-Sat 7:30 PM; Matinees Sat, Sun 2:30. Tickets are $32 and are available from Interrobang Theatre Project. Half-price tickets are available. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.
Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member