Clyde's

(Left to right) Nedra Snipes as Letitia, Reza Salazar as Rafael and Garrett Young as Jason in the Goodman Theatre's production of ''Clyde's''.

I'm a sucker for plays that use food as a metaphor for life, so the Chicago premiere of Lynn Nottage's “Clyde's” at Goodman Theatre had me at the first scene: At a road-side truck stop outside Reading, PA, Montrellous tries to tempt his boss – the owner of the eponymous eatery– Clyde, with a delectable grilled cheese sandwich featuring melted cheddar and garlic butter on toasted sourdough bread. 

Insulting, abusive Clyde (Danielle Davis) rebukes thoughtful, philosophical Montrellous (Kevin Kenerly) in no uncertain terms, but in the very next scene, it's clear that his co-workers regard him as the sensei of sandwiches. They try to impress him with their creations — a Cubano, a bánh mì, etc.— only to be topped by his “Maine lobster, potato roll gently toasted and buttered with roasted garlic, paprika and cracked pepper with truffle mayo, caramelized fennel and a sprinkle of… dill.”

Montrellous also dishes up words of wisdom along with herbs from his garden out back. They range from his explanation of why the sandwich is the most democratic of all foods to his observation that the kitchen, ingredients and cooking are their tools to escape a prison mentality that could consume them. He is the moral center of the story, and Kenerly gives a marvelous performance.

All of the characters, including Clyde, were previously incarcerated, and in the play's 90-or-so minutes, we learn their backstories, see their vulnerabilities and watch their relationships develop. The mix of real and surreal makes it easy to believe that the cast are in a kind of purgatory with Clyde — whose history remains a mystery, though she may be in debt to some bad dudes — as a demon or devil (lots of references to this) whose purpose is to torment her staff.

The most serious of the crimes was committed by Jason (Garrett Young), the newcomer to the kitchen who has just been released from prison for a near-fatal assault depicted in Nottage's earlier play, “Sweat.” He arrives covered with white supremacist tattoos he says he got only as a survival measure while incarcerated. He's also a health inspector's nightmare, and not only for his habit of wiping his nose while preparing food. But Jason's profound neediness soon becomes apparent, and his journey from anger and alienation towards understanding and acceptance is moving.   

Rafael (Reza Salazar, reprising the role he originated at the Guthrie Theater and on Broadway) went to prison for holding up a bank — but with a toy gun and only because he wanted to buy his girlfriend a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Letitia (Nedra Snipes), who goes by “Tish,” broke into a pharmacy to get seizure medication for her disabled daughter but admits she “got greedy” and stole “Oxy and Addy” (Oxycodone and Adderall) to sell on the side. Rafael has feelings for Tish, but she's reluctant to get involved and keeps pushing him away.

As for Montrellous, he seems reluctant to talk about his past, but when the truth comes out, it reinforces his goodness. He also does his best to help the others do better, including getting Clyde's a rave review for its sandwiches, which could boost its reputation and business. But sharp-tongued Clyde dashes everyone's hopes for this and any other aspirations they might have, convinced they won't balk because they can't get jobs elsewhere. In the end, though, their resilience and refusal to give up prevails despite the odds.

Director Kate Whorisky, Nottage's frequent collaborator, paces the show briskly, accentuating the humor so some of the absurdities are laugh-out-loud funny. Takeshi Kata's set design, which expands a couple of times and encloses the rundown kitchen in a kind of picture frame, has a surreal quality that is enhanced by Christopher Akerlind's lighting, Justin Ellington's sound design and Justin Hicks' music. Jennifer Moeller's costumes suit the characters to a T, especially Clyde's succession of skin-tight outfits.  

My only real problem with “Clyde's” is that some of the rapid-fire dialogue was hard to understand. On the other hand, it reinforced my love of a good sandwich.

“ Clyde’s” is a co-production with Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, where it will appear Nov. 15 – Dec. 18.

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