I wasn’t that familiar with Chicago playwright Ike Holter’s work before, but based on his play Sender, now onstage at Urbanite Theatre, I’d like to see more.
Sender is one of seven plays Holter has written that are set in the fictional Chicago neighborhood of Rightlynd. Its four characters are millennials, friends having trouble moving into the “real” world of adulthood. The action is sparked when one of them, Lynx (L. James), returns over a hot Fourth of July from a year’s absence. It’s a shock, because the friends had assumed he was dead after his disappearance and noncommunication. He appears first to girlfriend Tess (Mary Williamson, who originated the role in Chicago), and she’s as angry and hurt as you’d expect her to be that he put her through a year of hell.
The questions of where he’s been and why are gradually addressed, but to differing degrees of satisfaction among those affected. Cassandra (DeAnna Wright), the one of the four who’s settling into a job with some responsibility, is ticked off enough to offer him money to leave again. She’s worried that her husband, Jordan (Ryan Leonard), will be diverted from his own job (at Groupon) and coming duties as a soon-to-be father and fall back into partying mode with Lynx. And sure enough, that happens, especially in a rapid-fire, crazily inventive scene where Jordan and Lynx drink and riff about disappearing again into the Wisconsin woods.
That scene is one example of Holter’s sharp, smart way with dialogue. Laced with profanity, it can make you laugh out loud, both in stream of consciousness mode and through more direct jokes, as when Tess, overburdened with college loan debt, admits, “I’ve got a major in poetry and a minor in art. All I can do is walk dogs.” But it can also hurt. For while these four people may be funny and frustrating in equal measure, they do feel real, and the consequences of their decisions and relationships bear painful outcomes.
Under Urbanite co-artistic director Brendan Ragan’s skilled direction, the actors of Sender prove impressive. Williamson as Tess is tough on the outside, giving as good as she gets in her fights with Lynx, but we see the vulnerable heart of her as well. Wright is powerful, too, as a woman taking charge but with one weak spot: her (somewhat inexplicable) love for Jordan. Leonard is willing to play to Jordan’s boy-man softness as he falls once more under Lynx’s spell. And as Lynx, James intrigues us, remaining a bit of a mystery as to why he has such impact over the others’ lives while his own is so messed up.
Jeff Weber’s scenic design—Tess’s cramped, disheveled apartment, with plenty of booze bottles and cigarettes strewn about and a minuscule balcony/fire escape—creates a fitting background for these characters to fall apart in. Whether you know anyone like Tess, Jordan, Cassandra and Lynx (or can even see something of yourself in them) or not, you should feel for them, as long as you can face strong language, brief nudity and some sexual content.
Sender continues through Feb. 16; for tickets call 321-1397 or go to urbanitetheatre.com.