Even if you’ve never seen William Petersen’s work on the big or small screen, he proves his star-power and acting chops on the Steppenwolf stage in the theater company’s new production of Slowgirl directed by co-ensemble member Randall Arney.
Confident enough to be subtle, Petersen evokes a John Heard-like portrayal of lone wolf Uncle Sterling. His natural and believable performance counters that of co-lead Rae Gray, who plays the talkative Massachusetts teen Becky without a Massachusetts accent, charisma or range.
Through her over-enunciated lines, Becky loudly announces her arrival at her uncle’s Costa Rican hut. She’s visiting for a week since she’s suspected of a possible (albeit accidental) murder back home. The obvious reveal revolves around whether she did or did not push the title character out a window, though the real mystery is what parents would let their 17-year-old daughter, who is under investigation, travel solo in the jungle to visit a relative no one has seen in nine years.
Another mystery is why Erica Daniels cast mediocre Rae Gray in such a meaty role since the daughter of the Gray Talent Group, Inc. gives credence to the phrase, “the cobbler’s children have no shoes.”
Of course, the fault of the production is not solely hers. In addition to the contrived premise, playwright Greg Pierce fails to relay a message with much resonance or relevance. (Maybe his parents run a talent agency too.) The dialogue is neither very funny nor very dramatic. And despite introducing plenty of guns (a blown-off birthday, blow jobs with the maid, iguanas on the roof), none go off so there’s not much tension, story or suspense.
There’s no need for the characters to be related since family issues never really prove that interesting or important. There’s no reason for Becky to be a teen since there are virtually no references to the generation gap. Indeed, it seems unlikely that a Gen-texter would be so verbal—especially when her monologues are so forgettable. The characters’ backstories come across as exposition since what they’re communicating doesn’t connect with the present action, which includes learning how to make a smoothie.
Granted, the New York production that premiered at Lincoln Center Theater last year received glowing notices, but it had actress Sarah Steele (who has an established track record for impressive performances in films Spanglish and Please Give) to sell the material. Without someone of her comic timing and dramatic depth, the role and story fall flat.
There’s no one to root for, other than Petersen who is basically on stage by himself. He can’t play off his costar since she’s reciting lines rather than reacting to him. He may as well be doing a one-man show: Mark Twain Tonight, Give ’em Hell, Harry!—give him something, anything, worthy of his talent and the audience’s time.
Slowgirl opens tonight and runs through August 25 in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre on 1650 N. Halsted Street. For tickets ($20 – $78), call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org. Half-price rush tickets are available one hour before each show at the theater. Student discounts are offered at steppenwolf.org/students and special group rates for 10 or more can be found at steppenwolf.org/groups. Free post-show discussions are offered after every performance in the subscription season.