“Thaddeus and Slocum” is the kind of theater that artists and audiences alike come to Lookingglass for. It is a big work that grapples with big ideas. Here you find Lookingglass’ signature blending of mediums (music, dance, clowning, acrobatics) at the service of the story and not the other way around. And so a small slide from just stage left to directly center takes on symbolic resonance in a work that is primarily concerned with the fluidity of identity, who we are from moment to moment within the context of art, love and solitude.
“Thaddeus and Slocum” starts slow. A few pointed remarks about race pepper the first fifteen minutes, which relies a tad too heavily on audience baiting references to Chicago landmarks. There is little that signals the themes that will brew and ferment within the rest of the play.
Once it completes its expositional warmups, “Thaddeus and Slocum” proves to be as lean and limber as its titular leads. For Travis Turner and Samuel Taylor there seems to be no distinction between acting and gymnastics. It is all performance and excellent at that. They are supported by a brilliant ensemble that boasts the likes of Molly Brennan, Raymond Fox and Lawrence DiStasi, if only to name a few, who hit their marks with confidence and apparent ease.
Using the frame of the early twentieth century, “Thaddeus and Slocum” presents the buds of racial freedom that would spread into myriad branches as the century wore on. It also reveals the bitter roots of bigotry. As a work of art, it is less concerned with details, which often spawn contradictions, but rather with accessibility and presentation. “Sunset Baby” this is not but it also does not endeavor to be. There is a refined clarity and confidence in playwright Kevin Douglas’ writing. A less gifted scribe may have gotten lost in the weeds. Douglas nimbly balances adventure and tragedy. “Thaddeus and Slocum” is a world premiere that has all the polish of a refined classic.
We all have roles to play, the characters in the various proceedings of our lives. Perhaps inner peace comes from being able to be the same person in every situation. And yet, if the resonances herein are any indication, that is a luxury that many still cannot afford. (Kevin Greene)
Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 North Michigan, (312)337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $20-$75. Through August 14.