MILES AWAY at Side Project Theatre Company, Review – Stuck In a Vicious Cycle

 

Christine Whitley’s Chicago premiere of Miles Away could just as easily be titled the name of another famous play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, with an extra emphasis on “long”. It’s never a good sign on opening night when the two people sitting on either side of you are struggling to keep their eyes open for a majority of the play. Mind you this show is only 95 minutes from start to finish; however, it feels much more like a grueling 240 minutes. This play might work better as a half hour skit, or even a 40 minute one-act, but instead it’s gotten stretched out to the point of absolute dullness. The thin, amateur, tediously repetitious, and largely irrelevant plot is the main problem here. Ms. Whitley overstuffs her underwhelming and ridiculous play with tons of disconnected hollow symbolic moments that are obviously meant to make this show seem “deep”, “artistic”, and “allegorical” but instead makes it all come off corny, clichéd, and quite frankly boring.

 

Josh Odor (Ron) and Isabell Ellison (Sissy)

 

 

Set in a seedy motel room “miles away” from everything. Ron (Josh Odor) a verbally abusive and commanding alcoholic has been on the road for over two years with his heroin addict teenage lover Sissy (Isabel Ellison). Sissy is an expert pool player, having learned how to play from an early age by her mother whom it turns out is also Ron’s ex-girlfriend. They have traveled from city to city conning people out of their money by fooling people at various pool halls with Sissy’s perfect pool playing abilities. But times have changed. Word has gotten out about their scam on internet blogs and chat rooms.  As they await an important meeting with a high income investor named Giles (Dan Wilson) who is interested in sponsoring Sissy in a pool tournament, their funds have all but dried up as have their patience with each other.

 

A majority of the play isn’t about their pool hustling scam, but about the highly dysfunctional, abusive, and destructive love/hate affair between Ron and Sissy. These two are trapped together. Sissy is a heroin addict who longs to escape Ron, but can’t find the strength to escape from him until the very end. She’s become too dependent on him. Ron is equally a co-dependent mess. His alcoholism gets steadily worse throughout the play as he chugs back more and more vodka and tries to get Sissy to have sex with him. Their relationship together is full of contradictions, shame, and a dependency that denotes a vicious cycle.

 

Josh Odor (Ron)

 

Miles Away is supposed to be a clever take on some classic pool hustling films such as The Hustler (2002), The Grifters (1991), and The Color of Money (1986). Those films exposed the inner psychological insecurities of the main characters, the seductiveness and thrill in being a con artist, the conflicting moral issues surrounding their lifestyles, and about the games they play - both in the pool halls and with each other. These films were great because the writing is smart, intriguing, and full of genuine depth. Basically, they contain everything that Miles Away isn’t, though it’s pretentious enough to pretend like it does. Above all what makes each of those films so intriguing is that the characters are at least interesting. In Ms. Whitley’s play our two main hustlers are so weak and bitter that they’re stale to watch. We don’t feel anything for them other than boredom.

 

Isabell Ellison (Sissy) and Josh Odor (Ron)

 

The press release for Miles Away calls this show a “thriller”, but that would require thrills if not genuine suspense - which this play is lacking all around. In fact I’m hesitant to even call this play a drama for the simple fact that there’s hardly any dramatic action. The show is more of an experiment and one that’s badly in need of a pulse. After all, this whole play has a rough draft quality to it. It’s like Ms. Whitley pieced together the entire script at the last minute for a final project in a playwriting 101 class. So how bad is it? Well the first 50 minutes deal with just Ron and Sissy bickering back and forth over and over and over. It gets old fast. Both characters are so utterly unlikeable that we stop caring what happens to them from the get-go and soon start wondering when how much longer until something actually happens on stage. They argue and one of them has a breakdown and leaves the room in anger, but then returns. They fight again, same thing happens. And then again the same thing happens. The repetitious cycle of events isn’t interesting or profound it’s just unnerving.

 

And then there are the transparent, heavy-handed, and clunky abstract symbolisms that are forced into the script in very clumsy ways. At one point Ron reads out a personal section from Sissy’s secret diary describing how she feels like a trapped bird that wants to take flight. It makes sense, even if it’s a bit cheesy. Sissy is not ready to escape her nest. But then in the final moment of the play Ms. Whitley beats you over the head with this abstract metaphor by having Sissy literally coughing out a feather and she suddenly decides to take off from her nest for good. Subtlety is clearly something that’s over the head of this writer. Not only are the symbolisms awkwardly jammed in throughout, but she also gives away too much in the script. At one point Sissy stammers out something to the effect of, “Do you think [Giles] is putting on an act? He’s too clean cut.” Bluntly foreshadowing that Giles is up to something. It’s like a plot generator came up with this script.

 

Isabell Ellison (Sissy)

 

This play isn’t helped by the stilted directing of Scott Weinstein, who needed to focus more on actually helping our two young performers establish a stronger connection with each other, and less on “staging” the actors around the incredibly intimate Side Project theatre space. Not only did he not help the actors with character development but there are some enormous pacing issues that need to be cleaned up to give the entire play more urgency and to have it flow better. This is by far one of Mr. Weinstein’s worst directed plays, which is surprising considering how much I admire many of his previous works.

 

I do have to commend our two main performers, Isabel Ellison as Sissy and Josh Odor as Ron, who are trying their best to give substance to their characters. Yet for all their bantering fights and heated exchanges, there’s no escaping the feeling that these two characters are as tired of being around each other as we are watching them. No matter how much they bicker, emote impatient anger, and reveal small secrets they never really manage to push the evening’s temperature above freezing cold. They’re connecting emotionally to their own characters, but they’re not connecting to each other, especially on a deeper emotional, psychological, and sexual level. This is a problem in a three person play, especially one in which two characters take up nearly 65 minutes of it. Many of the power dynamics between the two aren’t as fully fleshed out as they could have been to make this play more interesting to watch. It’s like they did most of their acting work and character development on their own time and spent very little of it trying to establish meaningful and deep connectivity with their scene partners.

 

Isabell Ellison (Sissy) and Josh Odor (Ron)

 

Additionally there are many moments where it’s all too obvious that both actors are repeating overly planned-out lines from a script. They are so over-thought that they feel untruthful, if not overacted. These two performers clearly did their work, but they’re too in their heads and need to let it go so they can live in the moment more. In terms of style, both Ms. Ellison and Mr. Odor are too sophisticated. The way they’re written, I have a feeling that they should be coming off as more lower-class or “trashier” than how they’re currently being interpreted. And probably the biggest issue I had with these two performers is that neither of them raised the stakes enough for there to be suspense between the two characters. These two characters have run out of money, their gig is up, and they have few if no other options available to them. That sense of urgent desperation just isn’t being conveyed very well. A lot of the back and forth bickering between the two is so casual that it’s monotonous. Both performers are falling into the trap of overplaying their characters’ weaknesses instead of building up their strengths and their more human elements. These characters are already written as losers and unfortunately that’s how they’re being played as well. All this does is further the disconnect we feel from actually caring about what happens to either of them.

 

Perhaps these characters might be more believable if the actors were actually cast age appropriately to their respective roles. Mr. Odor is too young to be playing Ron - he looks to be in his late 20’s to early 30’s; however, it’s revealed to us that Ron was dating Sissy’s mother which would make him in his 40’s or early 50’s. Ron needs to be played by a more age appropriate actor for things make sense. It would have added a creepier dynamic to the relationship between the two characters that would make Sissy appear as if she’s suffering from “Stockholm syndrome”. In the same breath Ms. Ellison is equally miscast for her age. According to the script, Sissy should be around 17 or 18, but Ms. Ellison appears to be in her early to mid-20’s. Obviously the material is too deep for an actual 17 year old, and if Ron were played by an older man Ms. Ellison would come off younger than she actually is. As it is now the two seem like they’re around the same age range. The other problem with their ages is that Ms. Ellison is trying too hard to make Sissy come off less mature and juvenile than she actually is. At times her performance borders on being a whinny emotional teenage stereotype that comes off as more annoying than sympathetic.

 

Left to Right - Isabell Ellison (Sissy), Josh Odor (Ron), and Dan Wilson (Giles)

 

The only sense of relief we get comes when Dan Wilson finally appears about an hour into the play as the clean-cut preppy Giles. His character is intriguing as he obviously brings along an ulterior motive for wanting to pay high money to sponsor Sissy. But unlike our two leads, Mr. Wilson has a firm command on his character which is subtle, engaging, and often very amusing. His brief and sudden presence brings in a fresh air to the play that is sorely needed to wake us up. It’s too bad that the only other time we get that sense of fresh relief in this entire play is when it’s finally over.

 

Bottom Line: Miles Away is not recommended. I have to be honest… I found most of this play just downright unbearable to sit through. Unless you’re an insomniac looking for a good nap I cannot in good consciousness recommend this play to anyone. This is nothing against Side Project Theatre Company which undoubtedly has produced some very well done plays in the past. Nor is it a slap in the face to these three gifted performers who are all very talented. But even badly written plays, such as this one, should still be emotionally engaging or at the very least remotely entertaining. Yes, there is a vicious cycle to abusive relationships, but this play doesn’t develop it enough for us to really care about the issue the way we should. In fact the only question that you may leave the theatre pondering isn’t from anything in the play, but who in their right mind would produce this play in the first place. I can’t help but think that this company deserves better material than this.

 

Miles Away  – Side Project Theatre Company

Running Time: 1 hour and 35 minutes, there is no intermission

Location: 1439 West Jarvis Street, Chicago IL 60626

The theatre is located about a block and half east of the Jarvis Red Line station.

Runs through: August 31st, 2014

Curtain Times: Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 3:00 PM

There will be no scheduled performances from Saturday August 23 to Monday August 24th

Tickets: $20 and can be purchased online (see link above) or by calling the Box Office at 773-340-0140

Discounted Tickets: $10 Rogers Park Rush Tickets will be made available the day of show at the door with any ID containing the 60626 or 60645 zip codes.

 

Directed by Scott Weinstein, Written by Christine Whitley

Set Design by Adam Webster, Costume Design by Allison Smith, Lighting Design by Michael C. Smith, Sound Design by Alex Romberg, Properties Design by Holly McCauley, Board Operation by Krystal Martinez, Fight Choreography by Christina Gorman, Production Coordination by Brian Ruby, Graphic Design by Renee Witherwax

Cast includes: Josh Odor (Ron), Isabell Ellison (Sissy), Dan Wilson (Giles)

Photo Credits: Scott Dray

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