I admit to being a fan of Promethean Theatre’s Cameron Feagin. Each time I see her in a play, no matter the role, she manages to add something to the character that I didn’t—couldn’t—expect. For me, her most memorable roles are the times in which she has played a self-confident man—the title role in Richard III or JFK in Thirteen Days—roles that the always-original Promethean made possible. In its latest production, however, Feagin also proves herself strong enough to play a self-confident woman: Ida, the founder of the titular near-future town in Trina Kakacek’s A Town Called Progress, and might have been able to give this odd and idiosyncratic play some solidity if only Kakacek, a Chicagoan, had not made Ida so utterly averse to change.
Ida is not only the founder of the town, which exists among others named Conspiratorial and Backwards (two towns which, judging by their names, you probably wouldn’t want to claim as home), but one of its two (count ’em!) residents as the play opens. The other one is a much younger woman named Vivian (Kali Skatchke) who has taken on the job of cooking at the town’s lone business, a saloon. Ida rescued the young woman from a life living in an abandoned stairwell—this particular future seems pretty bleak—and has given her a Ministry dedicated to the procreation of new citizens for the fledgling town. It’s interesting that a stalwart feminist like Ida, who takes upon herself as many of the traditionally male jobs needed to run a town as possible, insists that Vivian only be in charge of having babies. (The younger woman has to give herself the position of Vice Mayor behind Ida’s back, and even her opening of the saloon’s restaurant needs to be kept secret at first.)
Ida is someone who has apparently been hurt badly and held down by the male-run society she has left behind. The maxims she lives by are all designed to empower women, and she recites them with the fervor of the religious as she passes them on to her protegé, who accepts them eagerly. Feagin’s portrayal of Ida is also interesting in that, at least at first, it seems very masculine. She believes in the power of women, but she has been indoctrinated into the kind of top-down governmental systems that favor men. She has learned a lot of things from this, but mostly she seems to have learned the force of autocracy. She has built herself a fiefdom in which she is the ultimate and only authority, and she does not tolerate anyone else’s ideas about running it. It’s only after she is injured and put out of commission for a while that there is, well, progress in Progress.
That injury—she is shot in the foot—actually comes about due to Vivian’s desperate desire to learn how to shoot a rifle, which is fostered by a young man, bizarrely dressed as a tumbleweed—his name is actually Weed—who has, um, rolled into town. He is accompanied by a non-binary friend named Slim and they have arrived hoping to become the third and fourth citizens of Progress. Ida is too stuck in her own ideals to see it, but Vivian—Acting Mayor after the shooting incident—recognizes that this is the path to real progress. She knows that her procreation ministry is critical (Weed volunteers his “seeds”) but is also aware that you can’t get stuck in the past if you want to move into the future.
The relationship between Ida and Vivian dominates the first act of this play. (It’s a two-hour-long play that could easily be trimmed to ninety or fewer minutes…and should be.) Ida is trying to get Vivian to follow in her path and to believe what she believes, and she is successful at first. However, as Vivian learns to assert herself—and to believe in herself—more, it becomes clearer and clearer that Ida’s anger and intractable beliefs are going to prevent Progress from becoming what she wants it to be. Vivian is much less formed and much more flexible; she is able to judge new situations not on the failures she has known but on the hopes that she has. Skatchke’s character noticeably gains confidence as the play moves on and the relationship changes; in fact, Ida spends most of Act Two in a bear cave, having abandoned her own town to try to stay true to her too-stringent ideals. These are actually some of the silliest moments in a play that often dines out on its silliness, especially when she is having conversations with a grilled rabbit. Don’t ask. Skatchke, meanwhile, is given far more meaty (though less rabbity) material to work with in Act Two, and she shines while playing it.
Meanwhile, new relationships are forming. Weed (Chris Woolsey) has a quasi-medical background, so he helps Ida with her injury, falling in love with her in the process. Vivian will accept his seeds, but not him; she has fallen in love with Slim (who of course cannot provide any seeds because they were assigned female at birth). Teri Talo plays Slim with one eye aimed at the seeming impossibility of their love for Vivian and the other flaring with anger at Ida for her at times overbearing and foolish rules. Slim is not perfect, and they know it; as an example, one of their earliest schemes to make money for the town by selling water (after fixing the pump that Ida could not fix) falls apart badly. The two even arm wrestle more than once to resolve problems, in accordance with Ida’s ironically masculine ideas of right and wrong. (Since when should physical strength be tied to leadership in a feminist world?)
Weed, who for some reason constantly wears Ida’s dresses, is probably the perfect counter to Ida’s gruff and uncompromising persona. Woolsey makes him extremely likable and trustworthy despite that characteristic of literally blowing in and out of towns on the wind. Gentle, kind, and helpful throughout the play, Weed comes across as the guy who, though he at first seems just plain weird, ultimately wins over a girlfriend’s parents just by being his sweet self.
In the end, while we do come to like and appreciate the residents of Progress (population 5 and promising to grow), the play itself does not seem to fully come together. This is a world premiere, so one would think Kakacek may do future rewrites to tighten it and maybe make Ida more likable…if for no other reason than the fact that Weed deserves a better life partner.
A Town Called Progress, presented by Promethean Theatre Ensemble, is now playing at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. Tickets are from the Den Theatre box office for performances through April 15. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.