At the core of Charise Castro Smith's amusingly ghoulish, horror-dramedy "Feathers and Teeth" -- in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre -- are a pair of broken hearts.
Recently widowed and overwhelmed dad Arthur (Eric Slater) responds to the death of his wife, Ellie (Ali Burch), by pushing aside his grief and moving on in a misguided attempt to re-establish a new normal for him and his teenage daughter Chris (Olivia Cygan). That new normal -- or what passes for it in the Midwest circa 1978 where the play is set -- includes an apple pie existence with his late wife's hospice nurse and Arthur's new girlfriend Carol, played by the terrific Christina Hall, who looks like Suzy Homemaker and sounds like she stepped out of "Fargo."
"Feathers and Teeth"★ ★ ★
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 18. Also 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12
Running time: About 85 minutes, no intermission
Parking: $22 (with Goodman validation) at the Government Center Self Park at Clark and Lake streets
Rating: For teens and older; contains violence, strong language, sexual situations and some nudity
Unlike her father, heartbroken Chris cannot get past her mother's passing.
No surprise there. For a child, what could be more terrifying than the loss of a parent?
Resentful of the outsider who has intruded on their grief, Chris becomes convinced that cheery Carol murdered her mother, and enlists Hugo (the engagingly nerdy Jordan Brodess), her lovesick next-door neighbor, to help confirm her suspicions and exact her revenge.
The real horror underscoring Smith's dark dramedy -- developed through Goodman's New Stages initiative -- is the loss of a parent and the profound impact it has on a 13-year-old girl.
There is another. It comes in the form of a feathered creature Arthur unintentionally runs over with his car, stuffs into Carol's stock pot and carries into set designer Kevin Depinet's vintage kitchen, which replicates 1970s style right down to the avocado appliances and linoleum floor. We never see the toothy beast, but we hear it courtesy of Foley artist Carolyn Hoerdemann, the sound effects whiz who voices the creature from her perch above the stage.
Unfortunately, it isn't dead. While Arthur and Carol dither, Chris dispatches the thing with a few well-aimed thrusts of a butcher knife and a disturbing nonchalance. But as any horror fan knows, what's presumed dead and buried doesn't necessarily remain that way.
To give away more would spoil the play, which is unlike any other Goodman has staged in its 90-year history.
Tautly directed by artistic associate Henry Godinez, Goodman's production is slick, raucous and even cringe-inducing. (I flinched several times, but I'm a newcomer to horror theater.)
The inclusion of Hoerdemann is a gimmick. But the gimmick works insofar as her sound effects craft a character and supply shivers. Hoerdemann is a bit distracting (several times I found myself watching her instead of the onstage action). But she's also entertaining
There is genuine sentiment amid the splatter, supplied mostly by the talented Cygan. A Northwestern University undergraduate, Cygan is ideal as a sullen, frustrated teenager. Her deliciously macabre dance (performed while wearing a gas mask) is among the play's goofiest scenes. And those moments when Chris reminisces about her mother, as scenes from their past play out shadow-puppet style, are its most poignant.
Smith tips her hand early and her satire could use more bite (pun intended). But she does horror and pathos well, capturing in this unique examination of grief the madness that profound sorrow inspires.