Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Lara Goetsch. Though there are aspects of this review that seem to be spoilers, for the most part, all plot points here can be found in the program and in the extensive lobby display.
In 2012, ATF agents mounted a sting operation in a storefront in Milwaukee. During the operation, known as Operation Fearless, they employed a mentally handicapped man named Chauncey Wright to hand out flyers, eventually convincing him to get people to sell them their guns (allegedly to get them off of the street). Wright eventually sold the agents some drugs and eight guns and was arrested. This is the core story on which Timeline Theatre’s world premiere play To Catch a Fish is based. To playwright Brett Nevue’s credit, he opts not to create a “docudrama” of these events but instead fictionalizes them enough to refocus attention away from the story and onto the characters, for whom he invents deep personal connections and issues. Unfortunately, though he succeeds in his desire, it is ultimately the story itself that trips him up, as he manages to turn a botched sting that the ATF itself later declared to be out of control into a vehicle for pure entrapment, leaving audience members potentially confused about just why and how all of this could occur.
The play, briskly paced under the direction of Ron OJ Parson, features some very strong acting and enough powerful moments for any play. As the central character Terry, Geno Walker exudes innocence–perhaps more than even the man upon whom the character was based–and does only what the agents tell him to do. Terry nearly drowned in a bathtub as a child and is left with a functional level of mental competence but still, as several characters insist, a messed up sense of what is right and what is wrong. He trusts easily and completely, and the agents take advantage of this. Walker, a near perpetual smile on his face and a propensity to touch and stroke things that reminded me of the similarly handicapped Lenny from Of Mice and Men, is utterly convincing as this challenged man who gets in too deep with people he doesn’t really know. His performance grounds the play for much of its duration, but when he is called upon by the script to lash out at his girlfriend (the strong Tiffany Addison) it seems completely out of character; we have been given no indication that he is ever a threat for violence. That he seemingly “forgets” all about it afterwards or at least downplays its importance is consistent with the broken moral compass thing, but still it comes out of nowhere and is not at all like Lenny’s violence, done out of fear because he is simply too strong.
The two characters can be equated in another way though: both of them are ultimately victims of their handicaps. Lenny, of course, is killed at the end of his play, and Terry, true to the backstory, is arrested, but that again is a place where Nevue’s script goes off the rails. Unlike Chauncey Wright, Terry never does anything other than what the ATF tells him to do. What they arrest him for is so flimsy that even the arresting cop acknowledges it will be thrown out of court, and it is pure entrapment. In a scene that perhaps is meant to show how persuasive these agents are, they also entrap Terry’s cousin into a scenario where he could be guilty of a felony despite having done nothing but what they told him to do.
The cousin, Dontre (played by Al’Jaleel McGhee), is a somewhat underwritten character. He has a lifelong love/hate relationship with his enfeebled cousin, but his actions are so often motivated by pure selfish greed that it’s easy to see why his grandmother (Linda Bright Clay) dislikes and distrusts him. Still, despite several nice moments from McGhee, Dontre remains something of an puzzle. He has elements of Death of a Salesman’s Biff in his self-denigrating speeches and his formerly criminal life, but he ultimately remains an enigma even to himself, which makes it hard for the audience to understand him.
Grandma, having lived with the guilt of allowing her grandchild to nearly drown (a guilt that weighs on her every minute), is more than the stereotype of a stalwart, Bible-quoting matriarch that she might at a glance seem to be. Her interior pain, brilliantly shown in an understated performance by Clay, colors her character and exposes us to far deeper layers than we might otherwise see, a nice piece of writing by Nevue.
Addison’s character, similarly, might have been merely a stereotypical support link for the handicapped Terry, but Nevue gives her enough meaty moments to allow her to portray the depth of Rochelle’s caring. In the end, though there is love there, it isn’t enough to stop Terry from being led off like Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire to his fate.
As to the ostensible villains of the piece, the only one with any kind of character depth is “G” (played by AnJi White), who does not agree at all with what the ATF agents are doing. Her scenes with Addison near the play’s end help to define her in a much more three-dimensional fashion than we get to see from her compatriots. Ike (Jay Worthington) and Dex (Stephen Walker) both lack development despite strong performances. Nevue’s decision to focus on the family leaves them as such flat entities that we never know what they are doing or why until after they have vanished from the play entirely.
To Catch a Fish, which really isn’t about fishing despite many references that attempt to solidify the metaphor, is a fine effort by Nevue but I think it needs to be workshopped a bit more before it can be called a polished play. Parson and the cast do everything they can with it, but it ultimately falls just a bit short of success.
To Catch a Fish is a Timeline Theatre production now playing through July 1. Times vary, so you’d best check the website. Tickets can be purchased from Timeline Theatre.