The audience in the 134 seats at American Theater Company in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood skews a little younger than at downtown theaters. For twentysomethings taking in the world premiere of T., which dramatizes the story of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding and her rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan, the pop history that surrounds the 1994 events might be as fuzzy as an older audience’s grasp of the 1919 “Black Sox” incident.
No matter. The world premiere drama by Dan Aibel brings that history alive in a compact 95 minutes while focusing on issues of class, gender and competition. But if the American Theater Company is hoping to repeat the success of its world premiere of playwright Stephen Karam’s The Humans, which went on to acclaim and a Tony Award on Broadway, they might want to hedge their bets. The script for T. suffers from a fatal flaw of syntax that dooms the production despite capable direction and performances.
Tonya Harding was an Oregon high school dropout whose hardscrabble background steeled her for the rigors of athletic competition even as it placed her at a personal disadvantage against media darling Kerrigan: muscle versus elegance. That Harding got the short end of the stick growing up is not in question. But should that translate into a scarcity of words? Playwright Aibel seems to think so. He axes pronouns, articles and more, as if words cost money the characters don’t have, forcing them to speak in an oddly inflected staccato that sounds as if every other word is missing. This unnatural speech distracts from an otherwise compelling story.
Director Margot Bordelon and the actors do their best but can’t overcome that syntactical flaw. That’s unfortunate, given the talent of the performers. Leah Raidt portrays Harding with a blend of brashness and vulnerability that digs deep. Kelli Simpkins is eloquent as her coach and Guy Massey affecting as Harding’s unhealthy slacker of a father. Tyler Ravelson is appropriately smarmy as Harding’s scheming manager-husband, and Nate Whelden is convincingly dim as the thug engaged to kneecap Kerrigan to eliminate her from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.
Andrew Boyce’s set, with its tacky paneling, captures the low point of 1990s design, as do the high-waisted, big-shouldered fashions of Stephanie Cluggish. Lighting and sound design, by Rachel K Levy and Miles Polaski respectively, telegraph the events with colorful bars of light and audio clips, making the story easy to follow. That story is worth telling — in as many words as needed.
Photos: Michael Brosilow
Through June 25, 2017
American Theater Company, 1909 W. Bryron St., Chicago
Tickets $20–38 at American Theater Company or (773) 409-4125