A Twist of Water

A huge hit when it opened at Theater Wit as a vibrnat world premiere by Caitlin Montayne Parrish, "A Twist of Water" has made a major move. This just triumph reopens at Lakeview's Mercury Theater on May 1 to deliver even more shocks of recognition to appreciative audiences. The biggest one is that cities and families are just a matter of degree.

The success is no surprise: It's appropriate that, shortly after his election, Mayor-elect Rahm Emmanuel saw and praised this very Chicago piece, a play that goes beyond the genre of domestic drama to make connections with the city that shapes its story. Perfectly shaped by Erica Weiss, Route 66 Theatre Company's staging is as much a labor of love as the script that inspires it.

Parrish's richly metaphorical drama deals in elemental emotions and core values as it depicts our struggle to be decent despite ourselves and our world. Parrish focuses on Noah (Stef Tovar), a gay man who recently lost his husband when the good doctor drove into a pond. Worse, because Noah was not legally married, he was not allowed to say goodbye to his dying Robert. But he insisted that their adopted teenage African-American daughter Jira (Falashay Pearson) do so, though she has yet to forgive Noah for not insisting on seeing his lover in his last moments.

Now, just as Noah has found love with the sardonic Liam (Alex Hugh Brown), a younger colleague at the high school where they teach, Jira wants "more family": Wracked with an early-life crisis of identity, devastated by the loss of the father she preferred, Jira schemes to meet her birth mother and discover the biological legacy that her fathers' lover could not explain. (Of course, no quest for the past ever gets fully rewarded.)

"A Twist of Water" pits one good against another. Black versus white is easy opposition, but the clash of positives that divides Jira from her father—and also from her "new" mother (Lili-Anne Brown)—is complex and rewarding. Most important, it receives its own civic framework, as Noah eloquently compares the site and story of Chicago as the city by the lake and river defines itself by the waters that surround it with Noah's own effort to forge a family. (Chicagoans are "children of a risk taken" as they created the Columbian Exposition, "a resurfaced Atlantis," among other wonders by our waters.)

Few plays become their own civic commentary, let alone redefine how we feel the place where we live. Playwright Parrish presents an intriguing argument: The city is the context that tells us who we are. Like Jira's family, it's fluid. Shaping Chicago are constant identity crises, emotional dysfunction and conditional love, ways in which the Windy City repeatedly comes up with a new and more accommodating self-image.

Parrish explains her take on the town: "The residents of a city feel pride and animosity in the same way members of a family do. A city has as brutal and majestic a fight with itself on a daily basis as any family does for control or peace. But, despite that fight, whether city or family, there's always a sense of being in the same boat with someone. If disaster comes, no one is excused. Be it snowstorm or the death of a parent, everyone takes some hurt and deals some back. Shared crisis is the great unifier: We're bound to both love and resent the people who were there with us. Of course a city is a family. It's an evolving, tumultuous entity, hopefully doing the best it can with what it was given, and the likelihood of everyone always being understood is very slim. "

"A Twist of Water' argues for a new concept of family values, irrespective of sexual orientation or race. This may be, Parrish argues, the force that will hold together the families of the future and stamps its cities too: "One reason I started writing "A Twist of Water" was that I wanted to depict a family that I see all the time in life but rarely on stage or screen: a normal, flawed group made up of gay parents and adopted children."

That's the future that Parrish's play projects: "At some point, every state will legalize gay marriage and LGBT adoption. That's just how things go forward. Going forward, I don't believe that the ties that bind will be much different than what they are now. It comes down to love, a profound sense of loyalty and duty, and, simply, having an intertwined history with a few select people. Your family is made up of the people who know as much about you as possible and have walked the same roads. You don't need to be blood-related to be in the trenches together. Your family is who recognizes and sustains you, even as you change. Especially as you change."

Of course, this means nothing if it doesn't feel real. Director Erica Weiss makes the words matter. She establishes a balance between the domestic scenes and the father's apostrophes about Chicago history. These provide a powerful counterpoint to the story about searching for identity through—or despite—the family.

The trick, Weiss explains, was to make the family's story nourish the city's: "To achieve that balance we drew a really clear connection between each component of the Chicago history storyline and the more immediate story of Noah and Jira and their family's journey. We knew that if each actor had a specific understanding of the metaphor in any given moment, we could help the audience understand the connection between the 'apostrophes' and the scenes that proceed and follow them."

There's a constant tension between the characters and their city: "Even though Noah is addressing the audience directly in those moments where he speaks about Chicago, he's also trying to figure out how to repair his relationship with his daughter, how to rebuild his family, using the subject he knows best. He's trying to work out how he'd explain this connection to his daughter, how to share this perspective with her, and he discovers what he needs to say by having this conversation with us, the audience." As we watch, Noah's struggle resonates with anyone trying to connect the private with the public to find a whole—a city or a family--that's greater than the sum of its parts.

It's no accident that the story is set against the backdrop of a Chicago winter. For three months every year (or more) the landscape--and waterscape as well—force us to define ourselves against its bleak neutrality. Evoking that state of nature and of mind was a key challenge for Weiss and her design team: "Scene designer Stephen H Carmody very much wanted to evoke the feeling of winter in Chicago. We started the design process in December. When the show first opened at Theater Wit, it was the middle of February - so that feeling of cold and bleakness fresh in our bones! Having lived in this city for 10 Chicago winters now, I have learned that the way we cope with our weather and the long trudge from November to April becomes a defining characteristic of any Windy City resident. The balance we strike between self-pity and pride in our ability to weather the storms, be it yet another grey day with bitterly cold winds or the great Snowpacolypse of 2011, is one of the traits that defines you as a Chicagoan. It's something that bonds us together, for better or worse. We wanted "A Twist of Water" to tap into that shared experience."

But the bigger bond is the family as a microcosm of the town they're in, adapting to and reflecting it in ways they can't imagine because they're too close to this huge shaper of stories. Weiss: "To be shaped by our region and to be given a sense of context for our families by the cities in which we live is a fundamental element of the American experience. Some cities have clearer narratives than others. Chicago's story is inherently dramatic and rife with turning points that mapped our unique course, and that's how families work."

That may be why, Weiss explains, "A Twist of Water" has touched Chicago audiences: "The most rewarding thing has been hearing how many different aspects of the play have affected people emotionally. Certainly there are themes in "A Twist of Water" that are universal - family is family, and love is love, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or city dwelling. People who are adopted or have adopted children or family members have a particular response to those elements of the story. Many people in the gay community have expressed appreciation for the play's depiction of gay men in a way that does not make sexual orientation an issue or a "problem" to be overcome. Those who have lost loved ones or partners have responded to the way the play deals with grief, loss, and the process of rebuilding. But on a whole, this play is a love letter to Chicago, and it is so gratifying that Chicago audiences are receiving and appreciating that love letter. It's an evening in the theatre that attempts to create a feeling of community between artist and audience, as all of us share a story and a city together."

Like two other Chicago icons, "The Front Page" in the 1920s or "A Raisin in the Sun" in the 1950s, "A Twist of Water" is the right story in the right place at the right time. Right now it's at the Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport, through June 5. The performance schedule is Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays at 4pm. Tickets for preview performances (to May 1) are $38.50 and for the regular run range from $38.50 to $44.50. Tickets are available for sale at www.mercurytheaterchicago.com or at (773) 325-1700.

Lawrence Bommer
Contributing Writer