Catey Sullivan has been writing about Chicago theater for more than 25 years. She is a contributing writer at Crain's Chicago, Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She's been published in Playbill, Pioneer Press, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other outlets. She has an MFA from the University of Illinois.
Pictured: Sydney Charles and Keith Neagle. Photo by Claire Demos.
By Catey Sullivan
It all but goes without saying that the first decade after the traditional four-year college experience is fraught with difficult transitions, both emotional and physical. It’s when you determine which of your undergrad soulmates will actually remain in your life post-diploma. It’s when you’ve got to figure out – to some degree anyway – whether you have a shot at making a living in a way that gives you fulfillment and/or makes any use of your major. And more often than not, it is a decade when you’re more apt than not to switch up your housing and your long-term relationships more than a few times before settling in for the really long haul.
For the foursome in Jeanine Nabers’ “A Swell in the Ground,” the evolution from Ivy League seniors in 2003 to stroller-pushing parents in 2013 is predictably difficult. Real-world pressures come crashing down on relationships that have previously been nurtured within the comparatively sheltered walls of Ithaca New York’s Cornell University. Booze and hookups – once synonymous with carefree partying – become symptoms of profound unhappiness. It’s the eternal problem of what millennials call “adulting”: Problems you can put off dealing with at 21 cannot be so breezily ignored as the years progress.
Nabers isn’t entirely successful in making a compelling story from the post-uni trials of Olivia (Sydney Charles), Nate (Keith Neagle), Abigail (Darci Nalepa) and Charles (Andrew Muwonge). There’s more breadth than depth in the Gift Theatre’s world premiere. Nabers asks audiences to invest in the lives of her Olivia, Nate, Abigail and Charles, but that’s a tough investment to make: The foursome and their troubles just aren’t interesting enough to sustain a 95-minute drama. While some of the underlying trauma haunting the characters of “A Swell in the Ground” is highly specific, the manifestation of that trauma is not. The emotional issues plaguing this friend group have played out in countless other dramas. There’s little that’s new on the table here.
That limits just how much director Chika Ike can do with “A Swell in the Ground.” She gets adequate performances out of her cast, but there’s only so far the ensemble can take a script that fails to bring a new lens to age-old problems. The problem is exacerbated because Nabers lets everyone know pretty much from the jump why Olivia – the central figure here – is so troubled. On the one hand, saving the source of Olivia’s trauma for a big reveal could be a cheap or manipulative dramatic ploy. On the other hand, there’s a monotony to Olivia’s unhappiness that might be mitigated if the audience didn’t know precisely what the problem was from the beginning.
Nabers’ does put an innovative twist in the timing of “A Swell in the Ground.” The non-linear script starts out during foursome’s senior year in 2003. From here, a dozen or so scenes skip back and forth between college and 2013, when all four have seemingly settled down as both spouses and parents. Still, the sexual and emotional tangles twining the group together are fairly predictable. You can see the break-ups and new-couple configurations coming from a long way off.
Almost all of Nabers’ scenes are two-handers. There’s the live-theater version of a split-screen that unfolds with two couples in the same apartment during two different years, and a reunion of sorts in a park where the whole ensemble puts a period at the end of the action. Other than that, virtually everything transpires via twosomes – which eventually make the piece feel slightly like a series of scene studies.
That said, the cast – especially Nalepa’s slightly sardonic, inwardly vulnerable Abigail – is quite good. As Nate, Neagle is also effective, subtly capturing the heartbreak that ensues as he morphs from infinitely hopeful college senior to an almost-thirtysomething trapped in a career path he loathes. A lesser cast would mug their way through the emotional breakthroughs and outbursts that come as the characters work through their Issues. That they don’t is a credit to Ike and the ensemble.
The piece is bookended by Olivia, who we initially meet at a concert in 2003. She’s slightly awkward – curiously neither a fan of the band or alcohol, the two primary reasons for being at the concert. Nate, meanwhile, is into it with the good-natured inebriation that colors many an over-served college night. He has a warming effect on her. She gets goofy drunk. They exit, bodies wrapped around each other with sloppy drunk glee.
Nabers then leaps to 2011: Nate and Olivia are married and living in New York City. She’s curled up on the couch when he comes shambling in from a wedding. She was supposed to be a bridesmaid but was too depressed to rouse herself. He’s flunked the New York City bar twice. Depression, drinking and death are making for an increasingly rocky relationship between the two.
From there, Nabers sketches in a glancing view at the other two college friends. Charles is some kind of high-powered ad exec – indicated by the office view he and Olivia pointedly discuss, the orders he’s constantly barking into the phone and his many mentions of international travel. Abigail is – well – underwritten, She drinks and talks to Nate a lot, but that’s about it. Olivia, we learn via one nearly throwaway line, is apparently a microbiologist. As for Nate, his thwarted law career has been heavily influenced by Olivia, or rather, by Olivia’s subtle-as-an-eight-inch-cigar Freudian issues.
The lack of career-world context is frustrating. Natasha, Olivia, Abigail and Charles would be fuller, more dimensional people if we knew more about their daily lives. But we know very little, beyond the fact that they’re unhappy for all the same reasons as most unhappy people. They have trouble processing grief, dealing with their parents, truly connecting with each other and coming to grips with their frustrations. If you were close friends with any of these four in real life, their trials would be a source of concern and ongoing interest.
But as characters propelling a drama? They just aren’t very interesting.
A SWELL IN THE GROUND runs through December 10th. For more information visit thegifttheatre.org.