Friday, April 12, 2019

Get Your Tickets: Ike Holter's 'Lottery Day' is a Winner at Goodman, Though Doesn't Hit Jackpot For Me -- Chicago Theater Review

Chicago Theater Review

Lottery Day
a world premiere play
by Ike Holter
directed by Lili-Anne Brown
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 28

Back in mid-2014, prompted almost entirely by a rave, 4-star (out of 4) review by the Chicago Tribune's excellent theater critic, Chris Jones, I went to see Exit Strategy, a play by a local playwright named Ike Holter.

Even beyond the play itself, the experience of going to a small room--used by the Jackalope Theater Company--within the vast Broadway Armory is one that still stands out.

And though my @@@@1/2 (out of 5) review meant I wasn't quite as smitten as Jones, I agreed that Holter was a terrific, important writer with a keen touch for chronicling good people facing difficulties--in the case of Exit Strategy, an impending school closing--within the less-than-glamorous heart of Chicago.

Having previously earned acclaim for Hit the Wall--which I have not seen--over the past 5 years, Holter has written six more plays in his 7-piece Rightlynd Series, named for a fictional neighborhood in the likewise-pretend 51st Ward of Chicago.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Staged by various local theaters--Jackalope again, Victory Gardens, A Red Orchid, Teatro Vista, Steep--I by no means consciously avoided these Holter works (Rightlynd, Sender, Prowess, The Wolf at the End of the Block, Red Rex, which I rue just missing at Steep), but I didn't get to any.

Until Thursday night, when I saw the culminating play, Lottery Day, in Goodman's Owen Theatre.

I had tickets before Chris Jones wrote his review of Lottery Day, but will note that he again rewarded @@@@ (out of 4), and called the Rightland saga "extraordinary." (Though this play and Exit Strategy are the only two earning his top rating.)

My regard for Jones' theatrical assessment expertise is assuredly higher than my own, yet while I concur that Lottery Day is well-worth your attendance and attention as a fine piece of theater, once again I wasn't quite as dazzled.

Lottery Day takes place entirely within the backyard of the Rightlynd home of Mallory (the brilliant J. Nicole Brooks), who serves as something of a matriarch for the neighborhood which she loves, but where she has experienced horrific violence.

On this day, for reasons important to Mallory, she is throwing a shindig, a backyard barbecue with seemingly even cut of meat her friend Avery (the always stellar James Vincent Meredith) can grill.

I won't attempt to pinpoint them all, but guests largely include characters from Holter's earlier Rightlynd plays, including the same actors from the original productions.

Though I've seen several of the performers in other shows beyond this series--Sydney Charles (who plays Zora here) was superb in the recent Nina Simone: Four Women at Northlight; Aurora Adachi-Winter (Tori) delighted in Vietgone at Writers Theatre--I obviously could only recognize Pat Whalen (Ricky) in reprising his role in Exit Strategy.

The other cast members--McKenzie Chinn (Cassandra), Robert Cornelius (Robinson), Tommy Rivera-Vega (Ezekiel), Tony Santiago (Nunley), Michele Vazquez (Vivien)--in this strong ensemble piece all merit mention as well. 

Per the printed introduction to Lottery Day by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, as well as the superlative review from Jones, the play stands entirely on its own, without requiring familiarity with the entire Rightlynd series.

In many ways, this indeed seemed so, as the characters, dialogue, themes resonated purely within the Owen on Thursday night.

I wouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing Lottery Day as a newcomer to Rightlynd, even if this is the final work of the series.

August Wilson, the late, legendary African-American playwright with whom Holter merits some (if premature) comparison, wrote 10 plays--each taking place in in a different 20th century decade--for what wound up being The Pittsburgh Cycle, and one can readily see and enjoy any of these works, individually and completely out of order.

That said, because several of the Lottery Day characters had previous narratives with which I was unfamiliar, I felt somewhat like I do if starting to watch a TV series after its first season. Or when I go to see a longstanding band I've only recently come to know; even if I study up on their songs, it's not like they're holistically ingrained in me.

Understandably, I don't know if this was really an issue, or simply one of perception, but I couldn't help but feel I was missing something.

And though under the direction Lili-Anne Brown, the performances and many potent themes--including some between-the-lines--made for an excellent evening of theater, I rarely felt the intangible tingle with which the very best drama revs up my emotional embrace.

It's certainly possible that my expectations were just too high, or that true dramatic greatness isn't
often overt.

But while I valued the story of friendship, community--even as it's been changed, gentrified and dispersed--personal tragedy, economic challenges and a proud woman who (per the play's title) wants to share some newfound wealth by rewarding a lucky pal for personal, poignant and impassioned reasons, I can't award my grand prize (of @@@@@ or even @@@@1/2).

But as I was saying to two friends afterward, one who liked Lottery Day more than I did, another a bit less, the value of theater--especially for those of us lucky enough to see much of it--isn't truly found in the merits of any given play (or musical).

Through theater, we are introduced to people, lives, situations, etc. unlike our own--or perhaps much like our own--and beyond personal opinions or @ ratings, we benefit from taking in all of them.

So whether I absolutely loved Lottery Day or not, it's a play I'm glad to have seen, and Ike Holter a writer I'm happy to know a little more about. More than how greatly I was entertained, my worldview was indisputably enhanced.

And that's the real reward.

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