Interrobang Theatre’s Chicago premiere production of Dawn King’s Foxfinder has a timely feeling to it. The opening play of the company’s eighth season, thematically entitled, “What Is Truth?” Foxfinder seems uncomfortably familiar. It takes place in a time of political upheaval, a time when England’s food supply has dwindled and, as often happens in a time of political instability, a government with totalitarian bents has arisen, as always with the consent of the governed. And as George Orwell ably demonstrated in 1984, such governments, in order to hold onto power once they have it, feed the people propaganda that focuses their attention on a common external (or, perhaps, internal) enemy they would like eradicated.
But whether the propagandized enemies are Jews, blacks, Moslems, gays, or “fake news,” governments have long known the truth of what Goebbels said: if you repeat something often enough, people start to believe it. And that belief, though not based on any truth, is how they hold control. In Foxfinder, the enemy is nature itself. It’s been raining forever. Farms are underwater and can’t meet their annual quotas, and the rain won’t stop. And on top of that, something is out there, the government convinces its people, that wants to control you and destroy your food. It is wily and sly and intelligent. It is your enemy. And we, they tell their people, are the only ones with the training to find and eliminate it.
The specific story we are watching is a tightly written, tense tale of a farm couple Samuel and Judith Covey (David Anthony Marshall and Alexandra Fisher) who live on and work one such small farm. The Coveys have had a world class rotten year: in addition to the farm disaster, they have lost their son Daniel to an accident, Samuel has been sick a great deal, and on top of all of that the family cat ran off. And now they are facing the greatest fear of all: the imminent arrival of a Foxfinder, William Bloor (Jack Olin). Think IRS audit, if the auditor had the individual authority to strip you of land and property, take your children away, and send you off to work in the bleakest of factories, where the life expectancy is three years. Bloor’s arrival then, obviously, throws what little balance remains in the Coveys' life utterly off the tracks. And when the officious and self-righteous 19-year-old dives right in, asking detailed questions about their farm for reasons they don’t understand, it terrifies them.
Once they have sown it (or found and exploited it), governments like this one feed off of the paranoia of their people. In this case, the well-founded fear of starvation in a land where food is scarce and Mother Nature seems to be hurting rather than helping the cause makes the job that much easier. (Bloor tells the Coveys that they sit in a "battlefield between the forces of civilization and the forces of nature.") Those in charge have a simple task, really: find an enemy, repeat again and again the fact that it is the enemy, and while doing so blow the enemy up to near-mythic proportions so that you are needed to solve the problem. This is the case with the foxes here, who are not merely animal predators, but mind-control experts that prey on humans even as they sleep. That this is absurd doesn’t matter. People will believe the lies they are fed if they hear them often enough. (Again, read the news on any given day to verify this.)
This is an impeccable production with an impeccable cast. From the moment you step foot into the theatre (Studio Two at Athenaeum), you are immersed in the world that director Margaret Knapp and technical director Josh Prisching wish to take you to. Eric Luchen’s cutaway set perfectly captures a small farmer’s home in Devonshire and the land outside of it. The preset lighting by John Kelly is among the best I’ve seen recently in focusing mood, time, and place. Jesse Case’s original music, once the show begins, enhances what is already a powerful experience. Everything is in place to support the acting, and the four players shine.
As the Coveys, Marshall and Fisher explore both the depths and the edges of a deep love frayed by death and trying times. The year they have had has hurt them badly and each is fighting the pain in their own ways without a lot of success. Samuel’s reaction both to his circumstances and to Bloor’s visit is anger that grows more and more out of control. Judith has turned to her friend and neighbor Sarah (Alanna Rogers) as confidante—a fact that puts Sarah in a very awkward bind when her own family and farm are threatened. Rogers is heartbreaking as a best friend whose own troubles subject her to blackmail from the government agent.
It is in the second half of Foxfinder, when Bloor becomes more than a mere caricature (and Olin is allowed much more depth in his portrayal), as Samuel descends into a kind of madness (and Marshall here is frightening; you don’t know what he might be capable of after all of that anger at the start), as Sarah’s personal fears mount (and Rogers’ expressive face betrays the pain she is feeling), that everything comes to a head. As Judith, the character who is our eyes and ears here and thus remains outside of the madness until she is chillingly drawn right into its center, Fisher has the dual job of portraying an outward semblance of calm and an internally exploding heart. She wisely doesn’t totally give in to the latter even when the script might allow her to do so, maintaining as much decorum as her character can in the face of such emotional times. But it is Judith who has the strength to carry on when the world is caving in.
Foxfinder is a taut, provocative, and timely play. By presenting a world in which nature itself has turned against man (can anyone say Climate Change?) Dawn King allows us to examine the ways in which we turn against each other. The truth, as they say on The X-Files, is out there. It’s just that it can be very, very hard to see.
Foxfinder, a production of Interrobang Theatre, is now playing at the Athenaeum Theatre through Nov 5. Tickets are available from Interrobang Theatre Company. Half-price tickets are available. Find more information about this and other plays at theatreinchicago.com.