THE THANKSGIVING PLAY at Steppenwolf review- a jaundiced view of the holiday story

Nate Santana and Paloma Nozicka with ensemble members Audrey Francis and Tim Hopper in Steppenwolf Theatre's Chicago premiere of The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse directed by Jess McLeod; photo by Michael Brosilow
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Steppenwolf Theater Company, 1646 N. Halsted St. Chicago, is currently presenting The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa FastHorse, directed by Jess McLeod, through June 2, 2024, in its in-the-round Ensemble Theater through June 2, 2024.

The play debuted in 2015, and since its emergence, it became the most performed piece in the country. Often described as penned with biting satire, just as likely to be judged a cliché, both supporters and detractors agree that it’s a particularly apt sendup of bespoke wokeness. 

However, with director Jess McLeod at the helm, an inspired cast of ensemble members Audrey Francis and Tim Hopper with Paloma Nozicka (making her Steppenwolf debut) and Nate Santana produce a hilarious entertainment of not exactly lighthearted spoof, including a broad dose of slapstick. True, the jokes are laid on with a trowel at the expense of all 4 characters, who together span the spectrum of clueless political correctness taken down to simple cluelessness. 

The cast of Steppenwolf Theatre’s premiere of The Thanksgiving Play

The premise is simple: 4 nitwit white adults are trying to stage a harmless Thanksgiving pageant in a grade school in nowheresville, America. The problem is they are tasked with supporting Native American Awareness Month. How do they go about offending nobody? Where to start cleaning up the image of Pilgrims gobbling turkey with Noble Savages? Who can escape getting scalped? The solution, after 90 minutes of truly awesome physical comedy, as they bungle through tokenism, sexism, beauty-ism, pandering to their sponsors and grant bestowers, is to have an empty, silent stage. 

The production is wrought with the amazing, detailed stagecraft and the supportive theatrical abundance that propels Steppenwolf into the top tier of theatre. Even before the play begins, weird Thanksgiving hymnlike dirges are keening in the atmosphere. When the cast appears, before the real action, a self-mocking, audacious adaptation of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is sung while iconic quasi relevant relics (teepees, moccasins) are trundled onto the set. 

In fact, the memorable choice of props is the most delightful aspect of the show. The Indian costumes, leather and beaded, the large colorful headdresses (in Santana’s case, worn over a childlike rendition of a black-and-white Puritan outfit replete with knickers and socks), seem authentic and fit perfectly.  When the cast tosses about the severed heads (allegedly of slain Indigenous Americans) dripping with gore, covering themselves in gobs of bloody show which remain for the rest of the play, it was side-splitting but sobering; are we on The Trail of Tears?

Steppenwolf Ensemble Member Audrey Francis and Nate Santana in Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play

Francis’ character, the erstwhile director of the pageant, is brilliantly portrayed as an insecure, quick-to-anger kneejerk spewer of p.c. catchwords, as is her street performer/yoga poser boyfriend, played as a man without a scintilla of cojones by Santana. Hopper, always deadpan and unfathomable, is particularly so as the “history specialist”, desperately hoping to come up with an idea that works. Both men are smitten-though never inappropriately behaved, of course- in their attentions to Nozicka, enthused and charming as an actress hired to play an Indian, who is NOT of the right heritage chops, but believes herself to be an authentic simple chick, flirting with both.

With lines like, “I have a day job but that’s not what’s important in the story of me”, and phrases like “ethnically ambiguous” riddling the dialogue, it doesn’t matter that this is a one-gag affair; the way the story is told amidst it’s show-and-tell ambiance, coupled with the supreme energy of the actors is more than enough to carry the script. The elephant in the room, of course, and that every audience member must acknowledge, is that there is nothing funny about genocide; the fact that we have inherited a cultural hegemony that supported a comedy like “Hogan’s Heroes” notwithstanding.

Kudos to scenic designer Andrew Boyce, costume designer Raquel Adorno and lighting designer Keith Parham for creating the visuals; to music director Kory Danielson and sound director Tosin Olufabi, for the aural surround; to violence designers R&D Choreography and intimacy consultant Jyreika Guest for the moves, and to all the production team.

All photos by Michael Brosilow

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