Chicago Premiere of Naperville Review - A Slice of Caffeinated Life

So, I live in Naperville, Illinois.  With a population approximately 148,000, Naperville is a large western suburb of Chicago.   When I was given the opportunity to review the Chicago production of Naperville, written by Naperville alum Mat Smart, I knew my thirty years here make me uniquely qualified.  This production at the Theater Wit is the Chicago premiere directed by Jeremy Wechsler.  And I was not disappointed.

The characters at Caribou (Andrew Jessop, Laura T. Fisher, Mike Tepeli, Charlie Strater, Abby Pierce)

The location is a Caribou Coffee on the southwest side of Naperville and the one hundred minute production provides us an inside view of a single day in the lives of several customers as they caffeinate their dreams and disillusionments.  The Caribou chain has left Chicagoland and it thrilled me to see that the set was spot on from the stone fireplace and mountain décor to the bathroom that was a large part of several scenes, admirably created by Scene Designer Joe Schermoly.

First we meet Anne, played by Abby Pierce.  She’s trying to kickstart a possible career by creating a podcast about the life and times of Joe Naper, the nineteenth century founder of Naperville.  She can’t quite get the details right, despite her somewhat useless history degree and volunteer work at Naper Settlement, a living history museum in the heart of downtown Naperville.  We sense that she’s frantically trying to pick up the pieces of her life and she doesn’t how to go about it aside from fueling her efforts with the delicious drinks purchased from new manager TC.  TC, played by Andrew Jessop, wants everything to be perfect as he takes on his new role, but he also laments about his own dream of being a professional clarinet player.  We are treated to TCs clarinet abilities as he uses his songs to illustrate how he feels. 

TC muses (Andrew Jessop)

As Anne continues her work, two new customers arrive, an older woman Candice (Laura T. Fisher), and her son Howard (Mike Tepeli).  Candice is being led by her son and it is clear that she is blind.  And we find out that she is newly blind and trying to adjust to life without sight.  Howard is home from his life in Seattle and wants to control her actions so that she can learn to live with her new disability.  But Candice wants to hold her own reins and they spar, even as TC tries unsuccessfully to make Anne’s favorite drink.  And finally, Roy (Charlie Strater), a friend of Candice’s, arrives.  The two had created a friendship at Caribou prior to her accident, and Roy has tried to bring Candice to his church to know God.  We learn that Howard and Anne went to the same high school where Anne was very popular and Howard was a chubby kid who shed his weight as an adult, though maybe not his feelings of inadequacy.  Despite their differences, Candice tries to set the two up, wanting Howard to find love.

Candice and Howard (Laura T. Fisher and Mike Tepeli)

Howard and Anne have a moment (Mike Tepeli and Abby Pierce)

As we delve deeper into the character’s stories and see them together, we find that they are all trying to find something they can control in their lives, which is often impossible.  Anne wanted one life, but now must try to create another.  Howard had moved away but now feels he must give up something to care for his mother.  Candice just wants to have some normalcy and not depend on people.  TC longs for his previous life and tries to control the responsibilities of his job.  And finally, Roy goes overboard to try to help others because he wasn’t there to help his own mother.  Ultimately, this is the human condition: coming to terms with our situations and understanding what we can and cannot control, and then finding out that life can change on a dime.

Howard and Anne connect in the restroom (Abby Pierce and Mike Tepeli)

Have faith (Laura T. Fisher, Charlie Strater, Mike Tepeli, and Abby Pierce)

I was quite taken with the performances of the show.  In particular, Laura T. Fisher as Candice is enthralling.  I honestly began to believe she was blind.  Her pragmatic view of the world coupled with home that can only come with age is apparent in her performance.   Abby Pierce has an expressive face and I believe her fear and sadness as she navigates the waters of her new condition.  Mike Tepeli plays Howard convincingly and Charlie Strater provides amusing counterpoint to the discussions among them.  Finally, Andrew Jessop is excellent as TC, and his clarinet playing was a high point for me (perhaps because I also played the clarinet back in the day). 

 

While there were many awesome references to Naperville which I enjoyed, I am happy that Mr. Smart did not try to go for trite observations about suburban life, but rather, allowed the characters to move within the boundaries and expanses of what a city such as Naperville can provide.  The setting could have been anywhere, really.

 

I felt like I was right there with the characters sipping my own mocha, eavesdropping on a tidbit of their lives.  I was sorry to see them go, and if anything, perhaps the angst was wrapped up a little too neatly at the end.  Ultimately, though, the disillusionment turned to hope and was satisfying.  And maybe the biggest take-away from Naperville is Caribou’s motto:  Life is short.  Stay awake for it.

 

Naperville runs September 6 – October 16 at the Theatre Wit, located at 1229 N. Belmont in Chicago.  To purchase tickets, visit Theatre Wit or call 773.975.8150.

Photos Courtesy of Charles Osgood.

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