Little Bear Ridge Road is everything theatre should be and everything Steppenwolf always was

Photo by Michael Brosilow

A one-act play, 95 minutes long, Little Bear Ridge Road is playwright Samuel D. Hunter at his finest. Hunter (The Whale) is known for powerful and personal writing, and this play provides plenty of that. What surprised me, though, is the amount of humor in it, most of it courtesy of the brilliant deadpan delivery of Laurie Metcalf, playing an independent, curmudgeonly Idaho woman whose gay nephew arrives in town to settle his dead, meth-addicted, and abusive father’s affairs. The play focuses on the long-strained relationship between these two people as well as the connections we do or do not make as we live our lives.

Micah Stock plays the nephew, Ethan, wearing the world’s weight as openly as anyone can. Broken by his father’s abuse and devastated by the fact that his favorite aunt (Metcalf) did not do enough to help him when he was a child, Ethan is a man who has lost—or never had—any purpose in life. Unable to be satisfied, as his aunt is, living alone, he haunts gay bars and dating apps looking for someone to hook up with or at least talk to. What he finds is James (John Drea), a man who is in many ways his opposite. Unlike depressed loner Ethan, James is personable and friendly; unlike Ethan’s complete lack of ambition, James is working on a Master’s in astrophysics; unlike Ethan’s dry, melancholy sense of humor, James comes across as basically happy; he doesn’t even abuse alcohol as Ethan does. Something, though, draws them together. Maybe it’s simply a dearth of choice—this is a gay bar in one of the reddest states in the nation—but whatever it is, they connect.

I’d say that Metcalf is amazing, but she’s been so good for so long that amazing performances just seem to come naturally to her. Whether she is wandering around seemingly aimlessly onstage—at one point she starts in one direction and then changes her mind to move in the opposite one—or lounging on the sole piece of furniture (a reclining sofa that revolves on a turntable to create varying views), or even just vacuuming, Metcalf imbues her character with so much life (and hidden warmth) that she is utterly compelling. And here she is playing off of Stock’s equally powerful and focused performance. Small-town Idaho, the meth crisis, and the pandemic, among other things, have drained both characters of much of their capacity for joy; finding this late connection with each other is a kind of salvation for them, and James is a godsend to them both. Forming bonds fairly easily with two stubbornly alone people, James imposes a sense of humanity on their lives.

Steppenwolf has always been known for the well-drawn characters it creates, and this world premiere is no exception. Director Joe Mantello—how did I manage to get this deep into this review without mentioning him?—could pull wonderful, fully-realized characters from the air, though he does not need to do so here. (Even the late-arriving nurse played by Meighan Gerachis is well-rounded and absolutely perfect.) Mantello also has a great vision for stage pictures, something that is really needed on such a limited set which is apparently designed to highlight the emptiness of these lives. His imaginative blocking lends them all greater depth as well as adding new dimensions to what we are seeing.

Little Bear Ridge Road is a showcase for a world-class director and cast, allowing Steppenwolf to return somewhat to its roots. The performances, especially Metcalf’s and Stock’s, are gritty, provocative, funny, and above all real. Don’t miss it.

Little Bear Ridge Road is a Steppenwolf Theatre production now playing at their Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted in Chicago through August 4  Performance times vary; check the website at Steppenwolf.org.  Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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