The Old Country

Production still from Steppenwolf’s virtual "The Old Country."

Steppenwolf Theatre Company's web site tells us that the three new virtual plays by ensemble member Tracy Letts create “the opening landscape of this season” in a lead up to the November return of live performances with the playwright's “Bug,” which closed early because of COVID-19.

A quote from Letts points out “These plays share at least one thread: a world off-kilter. But since I wrote these pieces, the actual world has undergone some hair-raising transformations, which have cast mysterious new light on these plays. They feel very much like stories for 2021.”

These observations could not be truer. Although the three plays — ”Night Safari,” “The Old Country” and “The Stretch” — total less than 40 minutes, they are, like “Bug,” portraits of people and a world out of whack. Each one starts out normally enough but becomes more bizarre as it progresses. They also demonstrate Letts' consummate skill as a playwright and benefit from fine productions that highlight the capabilities of digital theater.

“Night Safari,” directed by Patrick Zakem, features Rainn Wilson as our guide Gary leading us on a people-mover tour of the nocturnal animals at an unnamed zoo. His monologue begins with simple instructions, including the requisite “don't feed the animals,” but as he moves from the Panamanian Night Monkey through the Aardwolf and the Boreal Owl to the Paradoxical Frog, which is called “paradoxical” he says because the tadpole is bigger than the adult, his commentary on their mating habits and defenses against predators becomes entwined with his own preoccupations, particularly with a woman named Rhonda in the gift shop.

This middle-aged male homo sapiens' philosophizing about our lives compared with those of the creatures of the night climaxes with him asking us to “imagine that our journey from life to death was a gradual diminishing, dwarfed by nature and competition...losing locomotion and volume until they no longer register....”

Wilson's sad-sack look in his loose-fitting uniform, sipping coffee (or soda) through a straw from a plastic cup, is underscored by director of photography Robert Benavides' filming in black and white against a white brick wall. The dim lighting conjures up film noir, but when Gary first mentions each animal, we're treated to a color slide of it, often followed by a related shot of humans that looks decades old. It's an ingenious device that speaks volumes, augmenting this solo tragedy that's nonetheless humorous, practically a Letts hallmark.

The shortest of the plays at 10 minutes, “The Old Country” is one of the saddest pieces I've seen—and it's a puppet show. The scenario is deceptively simple: Two old men sit in a diner booth finishing their meal and reminiscing about the past. Ted (voiced by William Peterson) leads the conversation, talking about how terrific the food is — still — and how the waitresses all used to look like they came from the “Old Country.”

But something is off about Landy's (voiced by Mike Nussbaum) responses. Sometimes they're non sequiturs; other times they make little sense, like when he says he doesn't remember how many times he died in the Old Country. And he keeps calling Ted “Johnny.” He also has a slight tremor, leading us to believe he suffers from Parkinson's, dementia or both.

This makes communication between the two men difficult, if not impossible. When the waitress (voiced by Karen Rodriguez) comes to ask if they want dessert, Ted chides her for calling them “boys,” and then muses too loudly on his crude thoughts, embarrassing himself.

The vignette is even more compelling with puppets than it would be with people. Grace Needlman's brilliant puppet and production design puts the old men, rod puppets with meticulously crafted faces and hands that are simultaneously realistic and expressionistic, in a diner complete with claymation-like food and dinnerware. The puppets' mouths don't move, heightening the emotional distance between them, but their hands do, to pick up cups and, in Landy's case, to wipe his nose. His watery eyes are a poignant evocation of old age.

The rest of the team also deserves credit, including puppeteers Felix Mayes and Mike Oleon, director of photography Christopher Rejano, editor Allen Cordell and sound designer and composer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca.

Letts himself takes the reins for “The Stretch” directed by Anna D. Shapiro. He portrays the Announcer for the 108th running of the El Dorado Stakes, a horse race like no other.

You may suspect something is afoot when the Announcer lists the horses, even though real race horses often do have strange names. Among the dozen here are Architect, Sweet Sweet Sue, Whistling Pete, Bold Defender, Daddy's Little Dumpling, A Horse Called Man and My Enormous Ego.

As they round the corners and hurl down the straightaways, the spirited Announcer calls their every move, detailing interactions among them. (The jockeys are never mentioned.) Then something unexpected happens, and the interactions morph into anthropomorphic relationships punctuated by the Announcer's personal issues. Gradually, the situation and his commentary become transcendent and, if you never thought of horse racing as a metaphor for life, you will from now on.

Letts gives an impeccable performance, his tone and pacing shifting so perfectly with what he's seeing that we can see it, too. Shapiro's direction is totally on the mark, and editor and sound designer Cordell contributes considerably to bringing the scene to life.

You can watch the plays in any order, but I recommend the one described here to get the most out of the ways in which they're related.

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