We think we know what happened on the sticky-hot night of June 27, 1969, at a Greenwich Village bar known as the Stonewall Inn. A weary drag queen finally kicked a nasty cop, the story usually goes, leading to riots in the streets, a line in the sand and the beginning of the gay rights movement. So how would a young, small, low-budget, Chicago theater company credibly stage a play about a riot in the streets of lower Manhattan, a sacred riot to many, on the ground floor of the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre? And how might such a crew — not even around in 1969 — contextualize this familiar event anew?
Here's how. The Chicago playwright Ike Holter — whose gutsy, beautiful and riveting new work "Hit the Wall" is a spectacular piece of young, raw, impassioned Chicago theater — clearly understands that he is dealing with a pivotal night of gay history, a moment when a small personal rebellion cascaded beyond the bounds of that bar and became a crucial symbol of resistance, one that led to, but did not end with, anti-discrimination laws and the legalization of gay marriage. Of course these symbolic moments are invariably more complex than we think. A case has been made that the New York police had come to the Stonewall Inn that night to investigate its mobbed-up ownership, not to harass its gay and lesbian customers. But then history shows such harassment was routine. History shows such an opportunity was taken.
Holter pays homage to the familiar aspects of this narrative. He has just such a drag queen, played with precisely the right mixture of dignity, beauty and defiance by the formidable Manny Buckley. In one of many gripping scenes in this play, set in the bathroom of the bar, Buckley's Carson fights off the cruel, invasive hands of a police officer (played, with terrifying veracity, by Walter Owen Briggs), in turn galvanizing shy young lesbian Peg (Rania Manganaro) to join the resistance. But Holter doesn't allow the weight of the event, its import, to crush him in any way whatsoever. His dialog is rich, poetic, young, personal. And he is just as interested in other Stonewall stories.
As Holter paints the night here — and his free-wheeling, self-aware play, produced in the Steppenwolf Garage by a young theater group called The Inconvenience, is accompanied throughout by a live rock band — the most important cultural change begun that night involved a group of people whose default option went from watching to staying, and from lurking in the shadows and doing nothing to being willing to stand in full glare, personal secrets torn asunder.
The best scene of the play, beautifully acted by Manganaro and Mary Williamson, consists simply of two sisters talking, after the riot has been supplanted by an uneasy dawn. One is telling the other to leave all this and come home. "You could see your niece," Williamson's Madeline says. "You could have a family." Manganaro, whose work in this scene is quite remarkable, shows us how tempting that choice could be. She nearly goes, as did so many before. But the sister's entreaty comes, of course, at the price of self-denial, and thus it must be turned down. As Holter makes very clear, the fight at Stonewall was not just against those in riot gear.
On any number of practical levels, this wasn't an easy theatrical job, especially without any big-budget assistance (tickets are only $20). But Holter and the very capable director, Eric Hoff, somehow make it work by keeping the 10 actors rushing around the space, including the audience in their conversations and making way for a sense of humor. The Inconvenience keeps the show sufficiently outside a traditional structure that it feels like a scene, a party, a kind of interactive historical happening with a punch. Yet the storytelling is remarkably disciplined. The acting is consistently honest. And Holter understands that you can also find the heart of Stonewall in small scenes set on the fringes of the actual event. Yet you don't feel like you're watching a show that runs away from its core. You feel the sticky heat of the dance floor, and the central acts of invasive violence come crashing down right in front of your face.
The script could use one more draft: the early scenes, wherein two of the aformentioned gossipy watchers do their thing on a borrowed stoop, go on too long. The ending needs honing. And there are a couple of moments when the anti-gay characters show their true colors in a way such folks rarely do. But those are minor things that can easily be fixed. You'll get past them.
"Hit the Wall" is a must-see, especially for those with an investment in this event. It is the kind of show an older theater company could not easily do — indeed, it feels very much like the work of those who benefited from Stonewall but have to approach it from their own irreverent and reverent place, whatever the risks. There is a real fearlessness to the acting and the writing here, a passionate self-belief that leads a group of hugely promising young Chicago artists to blow past all the usual rules and reach for something great.
When: Through April 8
Where: Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes