Shrewd satire: Earnest performances, canny direction animate Steppenwolf’s ‘Thanksgiving Play’

“The Thanksgiving Play” — 3.5 stars

Pity the beleaguered theater artists struggling to create a culturally aware, historically accurate, politically correct, child-friendly pageant in “The Thanksgiving Play,” Larissa FastHorse’s shrewd satire of cisgender, heterosexual, Caucasian progressives and their unwavering wokeness currently running at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Determined to “lift up,” “hold space for” and “honor the voices” of Indigenous people as part of an elementary school commemoration of Native American Heritage Month, these artists mean well. But despite their good intentions, they bungle the job in funny, cringeworthy ways in FastHorse’s play, which sends up Indigenous stereotypes, sanitized history, identity, educators, patriarchy, liberal guilt, theaters (like Steppenwolf) and audiences (like Steppenwolf’s).

That’s a lot of satire for a 90-minute play, whose 2023 Broadway production marked the first by a known female Native American playwright. (FastHorse is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation.) Helming the play’s Chicago premiere fell to director Jess McLeod, whose canny, swiftly paced production benefits from an exceptional, indefatigable cast.

In less capable hands, these well-spoofed champions of representation of marginalized people would have been merely virtue signaling buffoons. But the earnest performances by McLeod’s cast reveal them to be people who are trying their best and failing spectacularly. We smirk, as FastHorse intends. But never do we doubt their sincerity.

Nate Santana, kneeling left, Audrey Francis, Tim Hopper and Paloma Nozicka play well-intentioned but hopelessly incompetent theater artists in Steppenwolf Theatre's revival of “The Thanksgiving Play,” Larissa FastHorse's satire on unwavering wokeness. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Certainly not Logan’s, the actor/director turned drama teacher (and dedicated vegan) charged with creating an elementary school Thanksgiving play. Desperate to regain school administrator and parents’ approval following her disastrous high school production of “The Iceman Cometh,” Logan (the great Audrey Francis, whose expressions are perfect) secured several arts in education grants to devise an authentically representative show that will debunk the myths surrounding what she describes as the “holiday of death.”

To that end, she recruits her lover Jaxton (Nate Santana), a fellow actor and all-around ally (mostly), until he hurls a gendered slur at Logan in response to her asserting authority. She replies by calling out his insecurity.

“I think this is what ‘less than’ feels like,” replies the stunned Jaxton, whose response resonated with female audience members. “Do you know how hard it is for a straight, white male to feel ‘less than’?”

Also on hand is history teacher and wannabe playwright Caden (Tim Hopper), whose exhaustive research — including graphic descriptions of European settlers’ brutality toward America’s native people and historically accurate, but now offensive, terms describing Native Americans — Logan rejects as inappropriate. Rounding out the creative team is Alicia (Glenview native Paloma Nozicka), an Indigenous actress from L.A. hired to serve as a “moral compass” by providing a Native American perspective. The problem is, Alicia is not Native American. She’s a white woman whose “super flexible” (read racially undefined) appearance allows her to play ethnic characters.

Nate Santana, standing, plays a child performing in a Thanksgiving pageant in director Jess McLeod’s production of “The Thanksgiving Play,” running through June 2 at Steppenwolf Theatre. The cast also includes Audrey Francis, left, Paloma Nozicka and Tim Hopper. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

That leaves four Caucasians to speak for Indigenous people. It goes horribly wrong, of course, as evidenced by Jaxton, Caden and Alicia’s frenzied re-enactment of a Native American massacre and its uproariously grisly aftermath. That absurdity — attempting to amplify marginalized voices without actually including marginalized people — inspires much of the play’s humor.

In a videotaped Steppenwolf interview, FastHorse explained “The Thanksgiving Play” resulted from theater professionals saying her plays were “un-castable” because they included Native American characters.

“Fine, American theater,” FastHorse said, “if you think you can’t produce my plays, I am going to make you a play that still deals with all the issues I care about, that are about the contemporary Indigenous experience, and they’re going to be done through the voices of four white-presenting characters.”

Four Caucasian theater artists (Audrey Francis, left, Paloma Nozicka, Nate Santana and Tim Hopper) try to make a play about the Native American experience without input from Native Americans in Steppenwolf Theatre's revival of “The Thanksgiving Play” by Larissa FastHorse.

As expected, those four white characters accomplish little, producing a historically inaccurate work that fails to authentically represent Native American people. There is a sliver of hope, though, as Logan and Jaxton realize that making space for others means surrendering their own.

“We need to be less,” says Jaxton, “do less. That’s the lesson.”

It’s one many theater makers have yet to learn.

• • •

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through June 2. No performances May 11 or 28

Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $20-$86

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