Classic Steppenwolf: Exceptional ‘Little Bear Ridge Road’ reveals Chicago theater at the height of its powers

“Little Bear Ridge Road” — 4 stars

Late in Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Little Bear Ridge Road” — a new play of unvarnished loveliness and understated humor by Samuel D. Hunter (“The Whale”) — a distraught man’s gut-wrenching admission triggers a panic attack. His aunt reaches for his clenched fist, pries it open and takes his hand in hers. A small measure of comfort, it’s all these wounded souls can manage in what is a poignant examination of loneliness, inertia and failed families.

Emotionally raw and breathtaking in its candor, that scene between Steppenwolf ensemble member Laurie Metcalf and Micah Stock exemplifies the superior acting that powers director Joe Mantello’s excellent production. That scene also reflects the exquisitely articulate direction of the Tony Award-winning director (“Assassins,” “Take Me Out”), whose judicious use of the pause is essential in a play where silence speaks volumes.

Silence seems to suit Ethan (Stock, impressive in his Steppenwolf debut), an emotionally detached 30-something whose mother abandoned him to take care of his drug-addicted father. A onetime aspiring writer of indirectly autobiographical fiction, Ethan stopped writing after realizing he doesn’t much care for his main characters, all of which are based on himself.

His Aunt Sarah (the superb Metcalf), a nurse, is equally reticent. Gruffly compassionate and fiercely independent, Sarah relocated from nearby Moscow, Idaho, a small city of 26,000, to the even smaller Troy.

“Just — suits me better,” she explains to Ethan. “Not being around — people.”

A death during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic reunites an aunt (Laurie Metcalf) and her estranged nephew (Micah Stock) in Steppenwolf Theatre's premiere of Samuel D. Hunter's “Little Bear Ridge Road.” Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Estranged for years, they reunite during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when Ethan arrives from Seattle to settle his late father’s meager estate.

Visibly depressed and newly single after breaking up with his longtime boyfriend, he accepts Sarah’s offer of her guest room and they become reacquainted. Navigating long-standing disappointment, regret and resentment, they establish a fragile connection rooted mostly in TV shows neither of them like.

It is apparent from the onset Ethan and Sarah are kindred spirits of sorts: lonely people with unresolved emotional trauma who longed to escape small-town life and never followed through. So they sit, or more accurately sprawl (in exhaustion or defeat), on Sarah’s power-reclining sofa. The lone piece of furniture on Scott Pask’s austere set, the couch and the white carpet on which it sits, is set against a towering black backdrop: a small oasis in the midst of infinite emptiness. It’s a powerful image.

Aspiring writer Ethan (Micah Stock), right, thinks he's meeting graduate student James (John Drea) for a hookup, which James thinks is a date in Samuel D. Hunter's “Little Bear Ridge Road,” extended through Aug. 4 at Steppenwolf Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Weeks turn to months, months turn to years as Ethan and Sarah slowly build their relationship, although Sarah remains less than forthcoming with her nephew. Meanwhile Ethan begins a relationship with James (an engaging John Drea), an astrophysics graduate student and all-around nice guy he met online. James has everything Ethan lacks: a loving family, direction, confidence and the ability to help fill the emotional black hole in Ethan’s soul and get him moving forward, maybe for the first time.

The performances reflect the visceral, focused style that has long been a Steppenwolf Theatre trademark, of which Metcalf, a four-time Emmy Award-winner and two-time Tony Award-winner, is a master.

Subtly humorous (her comic timing is first-rate) and deeply personal, Metcalf’s self-aware Sarah possesses a kind of prickly compassion that enables her to give her nephew what he needs, even though it’s not what he wants. It’s an unfailingly authentic performance that Stock — with his raw vulnerability and lingering self-loathing — matches note for blistering note.

In a videotaped interview for the theater, Hunter describes theater as “a place where we can shadow box our demons.”

Indeed. That is exactly what Ethan and Sarah do: confront their fears and their failures in order to, finally, move on.

• • •

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 Aug. 4. Also, 7:30 p.m. July 28 and Aug. 4; 2 p.m. July 10. No performances July 4 or 16. No evening performance July 10

Running time: About 100 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $20-$168

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