Working in a city like Chicago, especially downtown, the travel to work is filled with the homeless. The man shaking his paper cup, greeting those who get off the train. The woman with the dirt-smudged face, outside of Starbucks holding a sign that reads, “I’m Homeless. Please help.” The ex-vet with the dog, covered in a blanket lying in the fetal position on the corner. Traveling through these people on the trek to work can become downright exhausting. One begins to wonder, seeing the same faces, in the same positions, asking the same questions, holding the same signs, why can’t they just find jobs? Because after all, if you just gave people work the problem of homelessness would be solved, right?
This option is explored in Sideshow Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Kathleen Akerley’s “Tyrant.” Coupled with the two people sitting on stage with their backs facing the audience, the suspenseful music playing as you enter the theater warns that something tragic is ahead.
As the play begins, we find out that the two people on stage are Leon (Andy Lutz) and Regina (Clare O’Connor), who work in the home of philanthropist Martin (Matt Fletcher) as massage therapists. It was a trade given to them as a result of a law passed by Congress to end homelessness. This law dictates that the homeless will be taught a trade at a government-run Rectification Center, and then the services of the rectifees will be made available to affluent Americans in exchange for food and shelter.
Though well-intended, the law amounts to nothing more than as Matthew (Paige Smith), a fellow philanthropist with his own set of rectifees calls it, “servitude as salvation.”
All seems to be going well until Nicole (Karie Miller), a rectifee trained in counseling calls for Martin to do some self-examination. This is where things get complicated, proving that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Akerley and Megan A. Smith’s direction is imaginative and graceful, assisted by Cait Chiou’s simplistically elegant and efficient set design.
And yet, the play is a bit slow moving. Perhaps making Akerley’s intelligently designed yet lengthy conversations more concise and bringing Nicole in earlier might ignite the conflict quicker and focus the plot a bit more.
Still, the message of the play is not lost. Akerley suggests that the solution to homelessness is actually quite simple. She argues through “Tyrant” that the problem will not be solved until we first stop seeing the homeless as our inferiors, and instead accept them as our equals. She reminds us that they are living, breathing humans with pasts, presents and futures full of possibility. Until we acknowledge that, we can’t even begin to have a discussion about homelessness in America. She urges us to do better and through this play, challenges us to do so. (Loy Webb)
Sideshow Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont, (773)975-8150, sideshowtheatre.org. $20. Through June 29.