Playwright Lee Blessing has something to say about loneliness in “Thief River, ” a Chicago premiere production courtesy of The Side Project: “We’re born alone. We die alone. And every moment in between is an opportunity not to be alone.” It’s a sweetly lyrical if sentimental line, adjectives that might have described his entire play had he not misguidedly concerned himself more with the mechanics of storytelling than with the psychology of its storytellers. “Thief River” is a multi-generational memory play that tells of the clandestine and mostly painful love affair between two men spanning fifty years. It comments on the changing attitudes towards homosexuality in rural America, the homophobia that ultimately claims the men’s relationship and features three different pairs of actors portraying the couple at different times in history—the 1950s, the 1970s and today. As such, time here is always in flux—lurching forward by decades, flashing back briefly a few years or freezing to deliver an elliptical monologue. And yet, the play never bothers to dramatize scenes that might hint at why these young men came together in the first place, let alone satisfactorily explain what keeps them connected throughout the years (the play’s sometimes unnecessarily confusing chronology doesn’t help matters). Reductive reasoning such as fear of loneliness or lack of other available gay bachelors betrays the potential complexity of these characters, lessens what little dramatic stakes there are, and ultimately makes for an emotionally-unsatisfying experience, especially when compared to that thematically-similar cinematic masterpiece, “Brokeback Mountain.” At least the Side Project’s beautifully-observed production has been strongly cast with an ensemble capable of playing the spontaneity of a moment without losing sight of their characters’ overall emotional arcs. And director Jarrett Dapier has helmed with remarkable sensitivity imbuing the production with an intimacy and poignancy not always found in the writing. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
The Side Project Theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis Avenue, (773)973-2150. Thu-Sat 7:30pm/Sun 2pm. $15-$20. Through March 25.