The Firestorm, playing now at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook, is a political freight train where both parties of a mixed race couple Patrick the politician (Steve O’Connell) and his smart wife Gaby (Melanie Loren) must come to grips about their own aspirations after the exposure of an awful secret.
The set, as created by Angela Weber Miller, is beautiful in its simplicity as a single desk/credenza and a set of Eames-style modern chairs working collectively to aid in the discomfort. The ‘walls’ for the set are telling to the walls Patrick tries to put up. They are merely slats for corridors, simple barriers one can easily slip through. This unique set made for really interesting transitions from scene to scene as the actors move pieces for the next scene while starting in on it in shadow. Applause to the excellent decisions made by Director Rachel Lambert that were smoothly aided by a good music score penned by Christopher Kriz.
Patrick looks very similar to a younger version of an Illinois politician. Purposeful or not, it was a great casting decision. He knows he’s really done serious damage to his campaign but would’ve rather buried the truth. This truth, as told by him, is something that seems he could – with some deft skill a good politician should certainly possess – have been able to swing. He’s a bit of a trope, the milquetoast politician so worried about his persona that he’s willing to push others out in the limelight to speak for him, but there is a certain amount of appeal to him as we watch him struggle.
From the onset, Patrick and Gaby are both trying too hard to be in love with one another as they both have hidden aspirations, mountains to climb each feels they cannot conquer without the other. Patrick’s reasons for why they got married are far more telling than Gaby’s. She is far more direct and Melanie Loren’s superbly performed monologue deep into the play give succinct reasons why after he outs himself in his typical stumbling manner. She is the protagonist. You want her to win, to overcome his stubborn reticence for confrontation of his past.
You could see The Firestorm and believe the antagonist is Jamal, but take caution. He is set up by the playwright to be the antagonist and his appearance toward the end of the play does lead it to its crashing conclusion. Samuel Campbell III deliciously plays Jamal. He renders Jamal in a somewhat menacing manner but whose obvious intelligence, through a series of poignant lines, clearly outweighs the bumbling political hack that is the antagonist Patrick.
The Firestorm drops in the nuances of a campaign mostly through the eyes of the hyper PR person, Leslie (Kayle Kennedy). She is obviously enamored with Patrick as well as the thoughts of getting him elected into the governor’s seat. Her enthusiasm comes to a crashing halt when she realizes his now-exposed secret is too much to overcome for everybody.
There is a lot the playwright Meridith Friedman took on and she certainly showed her skills as a writer. The Firestorm starts like a slow train out of the station, a massive iron beast where you think you may be able to cross before it gets there but you’d die trying. However, it sputters in its pacing as some of the scenes struggle to build to the next one. That being said, the ending is a jarring one leaving the audience to come to what should be a couple obvious conclusions.
If you are interested in seeing how blind aspiration combines with racial strife, The Firestorm is a solid play to see at First Folio Theatre on the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook.
• Rick Copper is a writer, photographer, storyteller, part-time actor and comedian with a framed master’s degree from the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism and a loose Certificate of Completion sheet of paper from Second City’s improv program. His published works include “Crystal Lake: Incorporation of a city 1914-2014.”