Dead Children review – Dark but Dull around the Edges


The side project theatre company opens its 2016-17 season with the world premiere of Dead Children by Robert Tenges. The fifth collaborative project between side project artistic director Adam Webster and Tenges, this naturalistic drama follows the journeys of Renata and Tom, a married couple, after they decide to separate. Somewhere between heartfelt and disturbing, this new work tackles difficult issues with mixed success.


Kirsten D'Aurelio (Ren), Elizabeth Bagby (Kelly), and Barbara Roeder Harris (Gwen)


The relationship between Renata and Tom is not the center of the story; instead, the play follows them down the disparate paths they take to seek reconciliation with their troubled pasts. Tom seeks comfort in the arms of former lover Mary Jo, much to the disapproval of his religious sister Petra. Meanwhile, Renata clashes with both her abrasive elderly mother Gwen and her sister Kelly as her father lies dying in the hospital. Tackling questions about forgiveness, resentment, love, and the idea of moving on, the two central characters wrestle with complicated relationships, both with other people and with the past itself.


Victoria Gilbert (Mary Jo) and Erik Wagner (Tom)


Renata’s storyline is more compelling than Tom’s; possibly this is due to a lackluster performance by Erik Wagner, who mostly assumes the same expression (sad puppy) regardless of what happens onstage. He is redeemed somewhat, however, by the performances of the women around him; Shawna Tucker is compelling as religious fanatic and substitute mother Petra, and Victoria Gilbert brings a mix of warmth and sadness to Mary Jo that made me wish the play featured her story rather than Tom’s.


Erik Wagner (Tom) and Victoria Gilbert (Mary Jo)


On Ren’s side of the story, Elizabeth Bagby is an enthusiastic and sincere Kelly, and Barbara Roeder Harris portrays both the caustic and tragic aspects of Gwen’s personality with an impressive degree of specificity and nuance. And, of course, at the heart of that storyline is Kirsten D’Aurelio, whose portrayal of the cynical but not hopeless Renata is perhaps the most complex and compelling of the show. Ren has layers, some of them dark, and her inner turmoil is not only one of the strongest elements of the script, but is also portrayed with great vulnerability and intelligence by D’Aurelio.


Kirsten D'Aurelio (Ren) and Barbara Roeder Harris (Gwen)


Tenges strips his scripts down to the absolute minimum needed to tell the story, and while the goal of trimming away excess is an admirable one, he often trims a little more than he should. A playwright is free to drop tidbits of information and ask the audience to connect the dots, but Tenges’ dots are just a bit too far apart to know which ones ought to connect where. While, by the end of the show, everything mostly makes sense, during the performance, there is a thin veil of confusion between the audience and the characters that detracts from the storytelling.


Erik Wagner (Tom) and Victoria Gilbert (Mary Jo). All photos by Scott Dray


That said, the script does have its moments of resonance. The reunion of Tom and Mary Jo manages to avoid falling into cliché and hangs, suspended, in an intriguing in-between space. A dinner between Ren, Kelly, and Gwen ends with an absolutely killer line of dialogue. The final moments of the show, between Kelly and Gwen, reveal a long-kept secret that shows the elderly mother in an unexpected light and makes it impossible to issue an absolute judgement on her character.


Victoria Gilbert (Mary Jo) and Erik Wagner (Tom)


Dead Children is hosted by Chicago Dramatists as part of their Grafting Project, rather than in the side project’s usual hyperintimate space in Jarvis Square. The scope of the play seems to demand more space, although design-wise, it probably could have fit somewhere smaller. Regardless, scenic design by Milo Blue goes a long way toward highlighting the themes of the text, with exposed wooden beams in a poorly painted house hinting at a peeling away of the character’s facades.


Dark but dull around the edges, Dead Children finds an interesting perspective on the human condition and explores it with honest curiosity, if perhaps without the clarity it needs to resonate fully. This Tenges-Webster collaboration might not be the best thing you see this month, but it’s still worth seeing.


Ticket Information

Location: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave

Dates: September 23 – October 23, 2016

Times: Thursdays-Saturdays @8pm, Sundays @3pm.

Added show Monday, October 17 @8pm.

Tickets: $25. For tickets or more information, visit the side project website.

Please be advised that the performance contains nudity and references to abuse.

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