Review: PILGRIMS at The Gift Theatre

Review: PILGRIMS at The Gift Theatre

Pictured: Ed Flynn and Janelle Villas. Photo by Claire Demos.

By Abigail Trabue

Last night at Jefferson Park’s Gift Theatre — a storefront venue if ever there was one — I sat down, the lights shifted, the actors came on stage, a world swam around me. I was transfixed, and suddenly, the end. I blinked, and thought “it’s too soon.” And yet, there I was clapping and the actors were bowing. It was over. I stood up breathless and bursting to talk to someone about what I just experienced. I walked out to a warm Chicago evening and realized I had just witnessed a company catch lightning in a bottle. And like a kid getting off a rollercoaster, I wanted to jump back in line and do it all over again.

Under the smart and imaginative direction of Michael Patrick Thornton and Jessica Thebus, Gift’s world premiere of Claire Kiechel’s PILGRIMS is relevant, funny, confusing, heartbreaking, uncomfortable, and beautiful.

Set in a single cabin room aboard a ship bound for a newly discovered planet being colonized and Americanized by citizens and soldiers, we are introduced to the characters Soldier and Girl. Two strangers with two very different reasons for being aboard The Destiny. On board the cabin mates struggle with the past, the future, each other, the confines of the room, their thoughts and desires, suffocating fears and dying hopes, and with only Jasmine, an outdated robot as their link beyond the cabin walls, tension runs high and heat of the moment decisions are made.

In Soldier, we see unsettling parallels to our own combat choices. We push and force our Western ideals upon cultures we find “alien,” and colonize. Our men and women come home shell-shocked, riddled with PTSD and disillusioned with the country they fought so hard to defend. You see Vietnam, The Gulf War and Iraq in Soldiers suffering. Our arrogance is suffocating.

As Soldier, Ed Flynn turns in a tour-de-force performance. He is mesmerizing and accessible. He is frightening and gentle with this deeply unbalanced vulnerability that makes you want to hold him and tell him it’ll all be ok. He is ever present and lives moment to moment. I could watch him do this show a million times and never tire.

But Flynn is not alone on this journey, Janelle Villas’ Girl is a force to be reckoned with. She is unsettling and unrelenting. Villas is a superb physical actor and I’ve been a big fan of hers since I first saw her in TimeLine’s CHIMERICA, so it was no surprise to see this on display in PILGRIMS. She mixes warmth and sorrow with humor and pain. Brittany Burch’s physical and vocal work as Jasmine does exactly what it should — look unnatural without feeling unnatural. It’s no simple task, but Burch manages to make it look so easy.

From the pre-show soundscape, to rocketing into space, to the transitional music, Christopher Kriz delivers a masterclass in sound design. Add in Heather Gilbert’s stunning lighting — with her incredible use of color and shadow — against Arnel Sancianco’s chlostrophpbicly precise set adorned perfectly by Props Designer Alexandra Main, and costumer Izumi Inaba — who has an incredible eye for color and pattern — and you have a group of designers utilizing their talents to the fullest.

Kiechel’s script is why we become actors, designers, directors, and supporters of the arts. It requires all of you, both physically and mentally. She doesn’t let up and has delivered the best show I’ve seen all year.

Gift’s space is small, only about 30 seats, and those seats will sell. You would be wise to book your ticket now and take a ride into space with PILGRIMS. You won’t regret it.

PILGRIMS runs through July 3oth. For more information visit

About author

Abigail Trabue

Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue