AstonRep Theatre's 'The Crowd You're In With' sparks somber flares instead of fireworks
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
Rebecca Gilman has an unofficial, yet respectable residency that spans across many Chicago theatres, and it's easy to see why. Her crackling contemporary voice has blazed through many characters such as a morally questionable, foster care worker, an all-female Wisconsin bowling team, and a writer on the run from a blind date gone terribly wrong. She typically depicts female protagonists at the center of cantankerous surroundings hoping to salvage a remnant of hope or satisfaction.
Because Gilman's writing envelopes you snugly as a warm, hand-knit sweater, it's no surprise of AstonRep Theatre's choice, The Crowd You're In With, which conveniently plays during that sweet spot of Memorial Day weekend until the beginning of summer. As Chicago residents pray for heat after this month of wintry blends and startling showers, The Crowd You're In With is a pleasant water cooler that offers tensions of tangible heat and cold portions of beautifully bitter truth. It's not a question of either or, but both that will leave you anything but parched.
Directed by AstonRep Co-Artistic Director Derek Bertelsen, audiences are invited to the shortest barbecue ever at Raven Theatre---seventy-five minutes to be exact. It's the summer of 07' and the thrill of Fourth of July festivities hangs in the air, as palpable as the signature summer scent of charcoal coming off the grill (impressive sensory details at work here). But, patriotism and politics don't always mix as well as Aunt Edith's potato salad. In this instance, Uncle Ted's sangria might instead serve as a better aide.
Servings of insecurity, pride and inner demons are evenly distributed among this deceptively content ensemble. Sara Pavlak McGuire (Melinda) and Martin Diaz-Valdes (Jasper) invite their old, college friends, the expecting Maggie Antonijevic (Windsong) and Nick Freed (Dan), and no-nonsense Erin O’Brien (Darcy), and their particular, yet peaceful landlords, Lynne Baker (Karen) and Javier Carmona (Tom). Melinda and Jasper have had another failed attempt at getting pregnant and everyone is all too eager to weigh in on the matter. Gilman delivers on the topics her plays promise, but manages to surprise her audience with an unexpected argument or glimmering line that takes your breath away.
While baby talk is tossed around as the preferred main course of discussion, it's not long before the personal becomes political. Mentions of missing Clinton, the world ending in their children's lifetime, and the universal need for a living wage cause a pang in their similarities to now. The resonance of Gilman's text lands best here when it goes beyond the fluff and into the subtext of unsolicited advice, passive aggressive remarks, and later, breathtaking recollections. The discussion of having children and whether pro or con, reveals the depths of each character's politics, class, and hopes for the future.
While Gilman strikes again in terms of connecting compelling ideas instead of extracting them, her structure doesn't stand as strong compared to her other works. That this barbecue will prove to be a bust is inevitable and the most dynamic characters in attendance and source of conflict (the landlords) exit the party all too quickly on an odd note. Windsong and Dan serve their purpose as a potential path for Melinda and Jasper to model, but their reasons of age and legacy making them authoritative of why everyone should have children feels trite, and stuck in an old-fashioned attitude their generation wouldn't have inherited.
The most gripping, pivotal moments of this production are in the final scenes leading to its surprising, stunning conclusion. Melinda (McGuire) and Jasper (Diaz-Valdes) deliver a round of verbal sparring that encapsulates the tenderness and fears in a marriage earnestly and organically. There's no external factors needed like an affair or financial troubles that's typically used to watch modern marriages splinter. Their friends' and landlords' opinions are merely chatter, and they must come to terms with their future on their own terms, whether together or apart.
What steals the show by a mile is the long awaited return of Karen (Baker) and Tom (Carmona), who help lessen Jasper's leftovers over chill conversations and white wine. Karen and Tom's backstory is given a spotlight, and they earn every moment of it. It could be seen as merely exposition, but their charming back and forth and breathtaking honesty of revisiting their past is inviting and produces the strongest emotional beats of the show. Their triumphant return goes above and beyond what's anticipated; never delving into preaching or teaching mode with the two relaying their story as means to soothe Jasper's anxieties.
The Crowd You're In With reaches crowd-pleaser status towards the second half of its duration. Its political context, Chicago roots, and favorable Gilman flair make it a strong contender while unexplored possibilities could have made it unforgettable. It's easy to become enraptured after the busted barbecue is broken down, but it takes awhile to get to the pulse of what energizes this play to life.