A. Rey Pamatmat's new play Thunder Above, Deeps Below is one of the most inventive and daring plays to be staged this year, but there's perhaps too much magic and not enough realism. Not that one's likely to complain, given the lush staging from Pat Diamond, which uses Sandra Goldmark's harsh urbanity--stripper poles, plastic-covered walls, and sharply angled platforms--to accent the more poetic moments of the play. Diamond's sense of self compliments Pamatmat's roiling text--which deals with three characters who have lost themselves--and it's this framework that keeps Thunder Above, Deeps Below from losing itself.
The plot focuses on an unlikely trio of Chicago's homeless. Loudest is Hector (Rey Lucas), who has cultivated a thuggish personality in order to cope with his own prostitution. Then there's Gil (Jon Norman Schneider), an illegal Filipino working at the Bang Bangkok club to earn enough money for the surgery that will make her Jill, the woman she knows she is. And quietest is Theresa (Maureen Sebastian), who is attempting to avoid the responsibilities of her past--the baby she gave up--by taking responsibility for her two friends. Their plan to escape for San Francisco is doomed from the start, but their struggle to define the borders between their dreams and their reality is the meat of the play, as if Sarah Ruhl had written Three Sisters.
Ironically--though they're introduced in dream sequences--it's no fantasy that these three all have princes. Hector's wound up in a sexual relationship with an older man, Locke (Rafael Jordan), whose predilections are simultaneously sweet and disturbing (he wants a son). Gil speaks fondly of her time with an actual Iranian prince, and of the brief time that she was able to hide her outer masculinity by wearing a burka. As for Theresa, the father of her now-adopted child, Perry (Darian Dauchan), pursues her across Lake Michigan in not-quite-dream sequences.
The weaker part of this play, however, is the transformation of Marisol (Phyllis Johnson), the well-intentioned mother-figure who manages the Dippin' Do these three panhandle in front of, into a mystical boatman who ferries people into their new lives, helping them to be "reborn." It's a loud, brash, and sloppy resolution to the play, and it takes away from the subtler shifts, especially in Gil, who now--with makeup, a dress, and a wig--has come to fully embody herself. Thunder Above, Deeps Below is bursting with good intentions and great potential, but Pamatmat needs to learn that magic is never as effective once the trick behind it is revealed.