by Colleen Cottet

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 1, 2015

Nina O'Keefe and Kathleen Akerley
Nina O'Keefe and Kathleen Akerley   (Source:Jonathan L. Green)

I've got to hand it to Sideshow Theatre Company. Through bold and unusual choices, they consistently offer unique and challenging productions, never playing it safe, never shying away from the unconventional. I don't always like what I see when I take my seat at their shows, but I do love that I'm assured never to be bored or unmoved.

In their final production of the season, Sideshow continues to challenge its audience with the rolling world premiere of the post-apocalyptic tale "Chalk," written by Sideshow ensemble member Walt McGough. Presented in conjuncture with Boston's Fresh Ink Theatre, "Chalk" offers a stylized look at mother-daughter relationships, and, save for a few moments of disbalance, provides a worthwhile end to another Sideshow season.

"Chalk" opens with Maggie (Kathleen Akerley) sitting on the floor of an abandoned building. Surrounded by Pop Tarts, jugs of water and a circle drawn of chalk, she stretches, does yoga and planks, naps, alone and in silence. Enter Cora (Nina O'Keefe), who tries to quietly move past Maggie unnoticed. She fails, though, and addressing Maggie as "Mom," this Cora offers Maggie the food that she has scrounged for. Humanity has been slaughtered outside of these doors, we come to find, and Maggie and Cora appear to be sole survivors.

But something is amiss, and Maggie refuses to partake of Cora's feast. Cora greedily shovels the food into her mouth, taunting Maggie, and we come to realize the Cora before us is not what she seems. She is part of the party of unseen aliens who have destroyed humanity, and she wears Cora's body like a prize.

And yet the resourceful and calm Maggie holds her ground, armed with a book of spells that allowed her to place the circle of chalk on the floor and imbibe it with hidden power to keep the invader at bay. Maggie must only continually resist the ongoing onslaught of mocking from the alien Cora.

But can she, given the familiarity of the face the alien wears, and the knowledge of their relationship that it seems to possess? And how much of Cora is still left in her body, and can Maggie somehow retrieve her? In the wake of mass destruction, we are offered an unusual portrait of the most intimate relationship of all, that of mother and child, and all that it means to us when the rest of the world is stripped away.

Personally, though I love the genre of science fiction, I rarely see a good example of it in live theatre. Dependent as the audience is on visual cues, and given how unconventional those cues are in the genre, it fares better in forms where the visual can be more readily manipulated, like film or television.

But "Chalk" is about these two characters in the context of the larger apocalyptic landscape, and so the focus is pulled to them, to the acting, to the tension that builds and finally erupts between them. O'Keefe and Akerley, under the able direction of Megan A. Smith, offer fine performances as Cora and Maggie. Akerley possesses a quiet reserve and strength in Maggie that is wonderful to watch, and O'Keefe is intense as Cora, giving us an appropriately stylized performance as a woman overcome by strange forces.

That said, there were moments when O'Keefe took her performance over the top, seemingly playing for a laugh at the wrong times and upstaging her co-star during moments of quiet dialogue. A more careful and balanced execution would have been more appropriate, but those moments were simply moments, and all in all O'Keefe, with her intense and measured physicality, is mesmerizing to watch.

At its best, science fiction offers its audience analogies applicable to our ordinary lives. Through the relationship between Maggie the survivor and Cora the beaten, we can see the depth and breadth of maternal love such as manifests itself when a child is struggling with a bad relationship, or addiction, or simply with herself. Though the imagination that takes us into the world of "Chalk" is far-flung, the humanity of its players are what remain with its audience.

"Chalk" runs through June 28 at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N Lincoln Ave in Chicago. For information or tickets, call 773-871-3000 or visit

Colleen Cottet is a freelance writer and playwright, having written for such diverse publications as American Teen, Veterinary Technician, and the Journal of Ordinary Thought. Her work has been performed at the Chicago Park District and About Women. She resides in Chicago.