by Hedy Weiss
When: Through March 3
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells
Info: (312) 943-8722; www.aredorchidtheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
In Annie Baker's "The Aliens," the alternately poignant, haunting and chillingly real play now at A Red Orchid Theatre, we meet two lost boys, and a third who possesses the strength and self-knowledge to save himself.
You might think of these young men as variations on Peter Pan and his motherless pals, but they are very much 21st century American versions of those Victorian lads. And part of what sets them apart from similar characters suffering from various forms of alienation is their intelligence, and Baker's ability to create non-verbal sequences that are as uncannily eloquent as those that are fully verbalized. Often that verbalization can turn into a semi-psychotic rant or a New Age prayer. Every rhythm has a purpose here.
The place is the little back lot of The Green Sheep cafe in rural Vermont -- a shabby yard with a big trash bin and a tattered picnic table. This is where a pair of nearly thirtysomething college dropouts -- KJ (Brad Akin) and Jasper (Steve Haggard) -- spend their days "loitering." It also is where Evan (Michael Finley), a sensitive, wide-eyed high school student working as a bus boy for part of the summer, will receive his rather unorthodox coming-of-age education, even if he has every bit as much to teach as to learn.
Evan's path briefly intersects with that of the damaged older guys, yet he never succumbs to their arrested development, even if he is deeply affected by it. And in a way Baker hints at that most mysterious question: What allows one kid to survive and thrive in life while others self-destruct?
KJ (the big, gentle, heavily bearded Akin, remarkable in his unpredictability) has clearly ingested far too many "shrooms" in his life, and is part mathematical theorist, part self-styled Zen master and New Age priest. His pal Jasper (the slender, graceful, tautly wired Haggard) is a supremely talented writer (Baker's suggestion of pages from his novel is sensational). He has just been sent packing by his girlfriend, and suffers from a short fuse. Both guys are big fans of Charles Bukowski, that "lowlife poet laureate" of the West Coast. And of course long isolated by their intelligence and arrested emotional development, they were once part of a rock band aptly named The Aliens.
And then there is Evan, the college-bound kid who senses more than he has ever experienced, is clearly part of an intact family, but has stirrings of rebelliousness and experimentation. Michael Finley -- a Northwestern University junior studying theater, film and anthropology -- gives us a remarkable portrayal of a sensitive, lonely but solidly centered fellow. His acting instincts and powerful listening skills already mark him as a big talent.
Working on a Dan Stratton's wonderfully evocative environmental set, director Shade Murray's laserlike direction elicits three brilliant performances. It also finds all the jagged poetry in Baker's often surprising and disturbing play.