Guarded and damaging secrets are reluctantly needled out and spilled with cathartic sobs in "Slowgirl," Greg Pierce's 2012 off-Broadway drama now making its regional debut at Steppenwolf Theatre Company's intimate Upstairs Theatre in Chicago.
Focusing on how two family members of different generations deal with reputation-destroying scandals, "Slowgirl" is an involving drama that is imbued with humanity and stresses the importance of family in a crisis.
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"Slowgirl"★ ★ ★
Location: Steppenwolf Theatre Company Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 25
Running time: About 90 minutes without intermission
Parking: Metered parking and area pay garages
Rating: For mature audiences; profanity, drug use and sexually frank language
"Slowgirl" shows what happens when the reckless and uninhibited 17-year-old Becky (Rae Gray) visits her maternal uncle and godfather, Sterling (William Petersen of CBS-TV's "CSI: Crime Scene investigation"), who has become something of a recluse living in a jungle house outside a tiny town in Costa Rica.
Becky has been implicated in a partying accident that has left a developmentally disabled classmate named Mary Beth (whom all her friends call "Slowgirl") in a coma. So this partial family reunion in Latin America with an uncle that Becky hasn't seen in nine years is something of a last-chance escape before an uncertain future that may involve prison or being on the lam from the law.
Sterling is an enigma to Becky, and she is not at all shy in pestering him to share the uncomfortable circumstances of his divorce and financial scandals that made him not only persona non grata with her father, but also with his former legal colleagues back in the United States.
Pierce (who happens to be the nephew of Emmy and Tony Award-winning "Fraiser" actor David Hyde Pierce) provides enough intriguing clues to string audiences along to question whether what's being said is true or not as the boundaries of a unfamiliar family relationship is tested. It all ultimately leads up to an emotionally shattering confession that illuminates a great number of things ranging from the characters' bottled-up behavior to the mysterious events that led up to the personal tragedies clouding the characters' lives.
As Sterling, Petersen is very adept at showing the internal struggle over his character's past actions and questioning just how much he should treat his niece as a youngster to be parented or as a peer -- particularly since Becky is so unashamedly open about her experiences with sex, drugs and alcohol.
And in a nice symmetry for longtime Chicago theatergoers, "Slowgirl" similarly features a scene with the scraping claws of iguanas (an unsettling sound effect by designer Richard Woodbury) that may bring to mind Peterson's turn as the troubled Rev. Shannon in Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana" at the Goodman Theatre back in the 1990s.
Although Sterling is the adult in "Slowgirl," he's often cowed by his forthright and brash niece who is forever questioning his life's decisions and outlook. Unfortunately, it seems that Gray is still finding her way into the role of Becky based upon her performance at the critics' preview of "Slowgirl."
There were several instances in the dialogue where it was clear that if Gray had better comic timing and a more domineering presence, she could have elicited bigger laughs as the unfiltered Becky. But then again, audiences might be disquieted with the visual and audible jolts of seeing such an innocent-looking Gray performing down and dirty dialogue that often bubbles up out of nowhere.
Former Steppenwolf artistic director Randall Arney directs "Slowgirl" with plenty of assurance, and the production flows well on Takeshi Kata's skeletal jungle house set that appropriately doesn't give the actors a place to physically or emotionally hide from their characters' problems.
Though it wasn't quite perfect at the performance I saw, Steppenwolf's take on "Slowgirl" (which will journey to Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse next year) certainly has the potential to grow in emotional depth and quality.