Steppenwolf’s “Penelope” Tells a Tale of Emotional Desperation

Like the work of Pinter, Joyce and Beckett?

Then you might enjoy Steppenwolf’s “Penelope,” written by the award-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh. But if you’re not a fan of long, dramatic and sometimes abstract monologues, and a total lack of plot, this is not the show for you. That being said, there’s a lot to like about the play.

Off the coast of Greece, the captivating Penelope awaits the return of her husband, Odysseus, from the war. Beneath her window, four washed up old men in Speedos camp in an empty swimming pool, competing to win her love and be saved from the emptiness of their lives. Each gets a turn to plead with Penelope, in a spotlight, with a microphone—and their sometimes hilarious performances are played back on a TV screen in her lair above. Their efforts are given more urgency when all 4 men have the same premonition that Odysseus is returning imminently and will kill them when he does.

The show features stellar performances from the four main characters, under the direction of ensemble member Amy Morton: ensemble members Tracy Letts, Ian Barford and Yasen Peyankov, who plays the bully and performs a multi-costume variety show for Penelope; and Scott Jaeck, who proudly dances around in a leopard-print Speedo with his belly hanging out, in his Steppenwolf debut. And the set complements the actors’ work; it’s a brightly colored wasteland of tangled blue fold-up chairs, with a pathetic, painted cardboard box as a house.

Though many will not love that there’s so much talking and so little action in this play, the script is moving—the monologues are like melancholic poems. Even so, when it seems like Odysseus really is returning, it’s a relief not only for Penelope, but also for the audience.

“Penelope” runs through February 5, 2012 at in the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre. For tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit steppenwolf.org.

Photo by Michael Brosilow