Steppenwolf Tackles Teen Angst with “fml”

If you don’t know what “fml” means, then you probably aren’t a teenager.

Teens are both the subject and the intended audience for Sarah Gubbins’ play “fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life” — but adults are also likely to appreciate this timely, heartfelt drama in Steppenwolf Theatre’s series for young audiences.

For those of you in the dark, “fml” is one of those abbreviations that pop up a lot in text messages and tweets. The meaning is “f— my life.” It’s a shorthand way of uttering a cry of existential despair.

It’s not much of a plot spoiler to reveal that the teen at center of this play, a lesbian high-schooler in LaGrange named Jo, eventually shouts “fml” to the world via text message. Played with casual grace by Fiona Roberts, Jo faces the same pressures and bullying that confront so many gay and lesbian youths. She doesn’t seem to regard herself as courageous. She’s just being who she is — but that is indeed courageous.

Directed by Joanie Schultz, “fml” is a multimedia show. Panels behind the actors show drawings from the graphic novel Jo is writing. We also see what the characters are texting to one another.

The supporting characters — Jo’s older brother, a gay classmate, a straight female friend and the teacher Jo has a crush on, who’s leading the class through Carson McCullers’ “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” — are a supportive bunch. The bullies are all invisible, along with the parents and everyone else. That’s the one major flaw with “fml.” This is an intimate portrait of a likable girl admirably dealing with the pressures that society places on young gays and lesbians. What’s missing is a more concrete picture of the society beyond Jo’s circle of friends.

As a result, “fml” gets a grade of incomplete, but it should inspire young people who need to hear an important message one more time: It gets better.

“fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life” continues through March 18 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. For tickets and show times, call 312-335-1650 or visit

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