Stage Left Theatre, in keeping with its unique mission to produce theatre that promotes social and political debate, offers the emotionally charged "The Firestorm," a new play written by Meridith Friedman. Part of a rolling world premiere that began in Dallas, Texas and will conclude in Boulder, Colorado, "The Firestorm" asks tough questions of its characters and its audience, offering no simple answers in a time when the frustrating nature of political maneuvering confronts us on a daily basis.
"The Firestorm" opens in the home of Gaby (Kanome Jones) and Patrick (artistic director Vance Smith), a pair of recently married professionals. The scene is an intimate one: dinner is in preparation, banter is exchanged and the bloom is clearly still on the rose. It could be a simple portrait of any newlywed couple, save for the fact that Patrick is running for political office, and the pair is of different races.
These differences are touched on lightly, at first; Patrick chides Gaby for coming from an upper class, "snobby" upbringing, and Gaby points out that Patrick's background is far less educated and more blue-collar than her own. But Patrick is in preparations to run for governor of their state, and their differences are set now to become fodder for public consumption.
Enter Patrick's enthusiastic campaign manager Leslie (ensemble member Melanie Derleth), who meets with Gaby to prepare her for the burden of candidate's wife. While Gaby is a successful lawyer in her own right, Leslie makes clear that perception is power, and issues of clothing and hairstyle seem to carry more weight than Gaby's own considerable accomplishments.
But then an incident from Patrick's past comes to light. As a pledging college freshman, Patrick was pressured into participating in the intimidation of a black student Jamal (played as a grown man by David Lawrence Hamilton), news of which promises to destroy Patrick's bid for governor. What can be used to salvage Patrick's public face? Is the fact that Gaby is black enough to erase his past? And how does this revelation, most importantly, affect the relationship between two people who perhaps did not know each other as well as they thought?
"The Firestorm," led by director Drew Martin, is an intriguing look at how the personal and the political intermesh in modern times, and how powerful an issue race relations remain, even decades after the Civil Rights Act and into the final days of the presidency of an African-American. With such a strong premise, cemented by solid acting and an unexpected ending, "The Firestorm" is definitely worth its ticket price.
My one concern was how abbreviated the play was. Running time was only 85 minutes, and in its rush I felt the characters were being sold short of coming into full fruition before us. More could have been offered of the entire "Firestorm" ensemble. What of Patrick's background made him susceptible to peer pressure? Could there have been some part of him that felt anger towards a fellow student who was black? What about Patrick's behavior is really a surprise to Gaby, or did she allow herself to become blinded to the truths of the man she married, and more significantly, to the issues of those blacks less fortunate than her?
In particular, I wanted to see more of Jamal, whose presence looms over the play like a spectre, but is barely allowed dialogue when he finally enters the stage. Though the heart of the story remains the partnership between Gaby and Patrick, Jamal's story is as engaging, and room could have been made to better accommodate his inclusion.
"The Firestorm" runs through Nov. 29 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont in Chicago. For information or tickets, call 773-883-8830 or visit www.stagelefttheatre.com