Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Pictured: Aila Peck and Joseph Wiens. Photo by Evan Hanover.
By Conor McShane
Returning to your hometown can be a strange feeling. Familiar haunts can feel alien with a little bit of distance, and routines that were once comforting can feel awkward, sometimes even hostile. It’s something that anyone who’s left the relatively comfortable confines of their hometown for wider pastures can attest to; that strange mix of the comfortable and the uncanny. Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Rachel Bonds’s FIVE MILE LAKE, currently running at Theater Wit, seeks to explore this feeling from multiple angles: those returning home, those tagging along, and those who stayed behind.
Taking place in a small Pennsylvanian town, Bonds’s ensemble drama centers on a group of late 20-somethings, each with their own personal longing. There are brothers Rufus (Joseph Wiens), a Ph.D. candidate and the one who “got out,” and Jamie (Steve Peebles), who stayed in town and spends his days fixing up their grandfather’s old lake house. Jamie’s nursing a crush on his coworker Mary (Daniela Colucci), a former high school cross country star who put her own dreams on hold to care for her ailing father, followed quickly by her war vet brother Danny (Drew Schad), who’s struggled to find employment since returning from duty. Rufus is also accompanied by his girlfriend Peta (Aila Peck), the only complete outsider to the town, who’s nursing some deep pain of her own. Each of them seems unable to express their feelings to those who most need to hear it, but all find counsel in relative strangers — Rufus reconnects with Mary, Peta bonds with Jamie — able to say the things they want and need to say. Danny’s the only odd one out, appearing onstage in only one brief scene (Schad brings an effective mix of amiability and nervy intensity to his small role, but the script doesn’t make enough use of his character), and is mostly spoken about secondhand.
Those who prefer their plays packed with plot will probably have a hard time with FIVE MILE LAKE since not much “happens” in a conventional sense. It’s more concerned with what doesn’t happen, or hasn’t happened yet, its characters each dealing with their own feelings of stifled emotions or hopes. As it turns out, Rufus can’t bring himself to actually write his thesis, and he and Peta haven’t really dealt with the miscarriage that hangs over their relationship. Mary wishes she wasn’t weighed down by her brother’s struggle, and then, in turn, resents herself for having those feelings. The only one who seems okay with his lot in life is Jamie, who finds purpose in renovating the house, and whose main gripe is that his brother is mostly checked out of the family.
Ultimately, despite each of these individual struggles, the play doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts and doesn’t end up being the kind of cathartic experience that an audience member might hope for in this kind of story. While it’s typically more true to life to end without this kind of release, it makes for a less-than-fully-satisfying theater-going experience.
What we are given, however, is beautifully acted by the ensemble, led by direction from Cody Estle that allows for nuance and moments of grace. It’s not showy or flashy, but it’s all the more affecting for its subtlety. The passage of time and the pain of loss is reflected in Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set, with its empty windows suggesting crumbling small-town storefronts, a difficult reminder of past prosperity and times gone by. Bonds isn’t telling a particularly novel story, but its rather conventional structure is bolstered by the performances and nuanced characterizations. Overall, FIVE MILE LAKE is a well-executed — if not entirely emotionally satisfying — look at what it means to be “stuck,” and how any place can be stifling if you allow it to be.
FIVE MILE LAKE runs through Feb 24th. For more information visit shatteredglobe.org.