Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Seeds of Youthful Discontent: Despite Bountiful Crop of Strong Performances, 'The Harvest' Doesn't Entirely Flourish -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Harvest
a recent play by Samuel D. Hunter
directed by Jonathan Berry
Griffin Theatre Company
at the Den Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 26

With reasonably-priced tickets--through the box office and even cheaper on Goldstar and TodayTix--The Harvest is the type of play that warrants the attention of those who love intimate Chicago theater.

My rating above and review below reflect my honest appraisal, one not entirely glowing.

But I feel compelled to note that my friend Bob, who joined me at the opening performance, was considerably more wowed, instantly emoting that Samuel D. Hunter's play "took my breath away."

Bob is an avid theatergoer, arts lover and occasional actor, and his opinion that The Harvest is the best work he's seen in some time merits credence. His opinion, and yours, is every bit as valid as mine.

But while I agree with Bob that the seven character piece--in its Chicago premiere by Griffin Theatre--features fantastic acting throughout and kept me engaged for its 105-minute entirety (without an intermission), a number of narrative concerns temper my enthusiasm.

Taking place within a church basement somewhere in Idaho--Sotirios Livaditis' set design feels entirely realistic with a second-floor space at the Den Theatre--The Harvest concerns itself with five young missionaries finishing preparations for a trip to the Middle East.

As Charles Isherwood pointed out in his 2016 New York Times review of the play's Off-Broadway run, exactly (or even rather vaguely) where in the Middle East is never enunciated.

This was problematic for me mainly in conjunction with no one in the play wondering--even for argument's sake--if a mission to convert Muslims to Christianity might seem a tad impudent, insulting or even worse.

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter--whose The Few I enjoyed two years ago--demonstrates a deft sensibility to people questioning their purpose, motivation and faith, so it feels amiss that he never posits that such an expedition could be misguided, despite the beliefs of the missionaries.

Seemingly coordinating the trip, in conjunction with Pastor Chuck (Patrick Blashill), is the headstrong and somewhat haughty Ada (well-embodied by Kiayla Ryann).

Intending to accompany her for four months are Tom (Collin Quinn Rice), Marcus (Taylor Del Vecchio) and Denise (Kathryn Acosta)--the latter two a married couple--while Josh (Raphael Diaz) plans to embark on a more solitary mission of indefinite length.

Josh's plans--coming on the heels of the passing of his father, with whom he was living--bring his sister Michaela (an excellent Paloma Nozicka) back to town after 9 years away. They've remained in touch, but "Mickey" hadn't even come home for their dad's funeral.

Having faced struggles of her own, Mickey is empathetic to her brother's turmoil, but insists that Josh not overturn his life in such a dramatic, long-term and perhaps even dangerous way.

Ada constantly seems to just happen to interrupt Mickey's pleadings, while the sensitive Tom--long Josh's best friend--appears to have romantic feelings for his pal, and repeatedly speaks of conflicts with his own father.

Apart from some group praying--in tongues, for reasons I didn't quite get--most scenes in The Harvest pair off two characters, including Denise and Marcus often bickering over differing perspectives about what the mission will entail for them.

Though the interactions between Josh and Mickey are the best developed and most compelling--I do wish a little more discussion was devoted to her reappearance out of the blue--all the characters are nicely drawn and the performances quite stellar.

Director Jonathan Berry well-renders the varying emotions--including an abundance of doubt--as the new missionaries (seemingly in their 20s) spend their last few days in Idaho.

I like how we come to learn the reasons each individual has for undertaking the mission, which go well beyond matters of faith and wanting to spread the gospel. (This dissection of varying personal motivations is even more a strength of Rohina Malik's The Mecca Tales, a play The Harvest reminded me of.)

Other than occasionally worrying about a parking meter box I forgot to extend on Milwaukee Ave., The Harvest held my interest throughout.

Along with Bob's praise and the really fine acting, this bespeaks why I would recommend this play, even as I didn't quite love it.

I accept that dramatic license sometimes needs to be taken, but as The Harvest largely revolves around Josh's (perhaps wavering) resolve to head off on an open-ended mission, I found it odd that neither Mickey, Tom or Ada ever suggest he consider starting with a 4-month stint like everyone else.

I don't pretend to know the first thing about real-life missions--and have respect but not much personal reverence for any organized religion--but for a small-town church to be sending a young person to spread the word while "living alone in the hills" of a potentially dangerous Middle Eastern country, well, just the insurance and liability concerns would strike me as hindrances.

Also, I realize that one's faith is often deeply ingrained and perhaps more personal than can be overtly explained, but I can't say I got a real sense as to what Christianity meant to each of the characters and why--besides other aspects of their lives, which Hunter's script nicely explores--they are compelled to go to such lengths to promote it. people who presumably hold a different set of religious beliefs, not none at all.

With due respect to Hunter, Berry, everyone in and involved with Griffin's production, and my pal Bob, while I found The Harvest to be estimable and worthwhile, I just didn't reap 'sow' much from it.

But I offer no reason for you not to see what you think.

And heck, The Harvest may even grow on me.

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