A fateful exchange late in Signal Ensemble Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of "Princes of Waco" reveals both the strength of Signal's production and the unrealized potential of Robert Askins' 2010 play.
It takes place between Rob Fenton's appealing Jim, a young man, jaded before his time, and Joseph Stearns' shifty Fritz, the older man who jaded him.
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"Princes of Waco"★ ★ ★
Location: Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., Chicago, (773) 698-7389 or signalensemble.com
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 22
Running time: About one hour, 50 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $20, $15 for students, seniors, groups
Parking: Free street parking nearby
Rating: For adults, includes strong language and sexual content
"Everything I am, I owe to you," Jim explains with a kind of measured irony to Fritz, whose flinch at that backhanded compliment suggests a self-awareness that elevates the character from a run-of-the-mill lowlife.
The troubled acquaintance between the wannabe bad boy and the full-time barfly (and sometime stickup man) animates this coming-of-age tale about conflicted sons and ineffective, ersatz fathers. The premise has promise, and Askins' gritty, poetic writing has appeal.
Moreover, Askins seems to have drawn inspiration from proven sources: Pulitzer Prize winners Sam Shepard and Tracy Letts. The dysfunctional family relationships, torrid yet unsatisfying affairs and the perpetual sense of loneliness that underscore "Princes of Waco" recall Shepard, while Askins' characters come across as less menacing versions of Letts' creations.
Unfortunately, "Princes of Waco" misses the bar with its woolly plotting and a flimsy back story that fails to clarify characters' motivations. That said, director Bries Vannon sustains a certain amount of tension throughout the play, and Vannon's able quartet of actors do a fine job fleshing out familiar characters.
The action mostly unfolds in a dingy Waco, Texas, bar tucked behind a Baby Gap. Melania Lancy's shabby, bare-bones set has a suitably murky interior. Lit by designer Mike Smith, the set is illuminated on rare occasions by a sliver of unforgiving white light that pierces the gloom when the tavern door opens.
The play opens with underage Jim hunched over a bar when he should be attending the funeral of his recently departed preacher father. Sitting nearby is Fritz, a shady guy in his late 30s who recognizes a greenhorn when he sees one.
Before long, Fritz has stripped Jim of his father's watch and convinced the teen to attend his dad's service, during which Jim burns all of his remaining bridges. Except for the one that leads to Esme -- played by promising newcomer Carolyn Braver -- whom he tries to convince to run away with him.
Hours after first meeting Fritz, however, Jim ends up a felon. Soon after, Fritz drops a dime on Jim, who's charged with robbery and sent to prison.
Fast forward a few years. Jim returns, every inch the "bad man" he claimed to be, to find Fritz working toward a nursing degree and living with Esme, no longer the dewy-eyed girl he loved.
Rounding out the cast is Meredith Bell Alvarez, spot on as a world-weary bartender named Toasty who's seen this kind of domestic drama before and knows better than anyone how it will end.
Fenton perfectly embodies the fresh-scrubbed, frustrated, all-American teen. A credible example of barely contained anger, frustration and confusion, the actor taps effortlessly into late adolescent angst. He's equally convincing as the cool ex-con pulling the strings in the second act, which practically repeats the first -- save for a shift in power.
Stearns' performance suggests both a thinly veiled dishonesty and a guy who acutely recognizes his failures even as he tries to reform, and Alvarez brings an understated humanity to Toasty. But the real find here is Braver, pitch-perfect as a fallen angel who's lost her chance at salvation.