"You don't live with choices. You die with them." That sorrowful pronouncement, issued by Jack, a gruff Navy vet father, forms the crux of the dilemmas underlying David Alex's "Adrift," now in its world premiere with Polarity Ensemble Theatre in association with Azusa Productions.
Alex, himself a retired math teacher, places Jack's quirky math-teacher son, Isaac (Colin Henry Fewell), at the center of his intellectually sculpted but emotionally rather inert portrait of generational conflicts and questions of honor. As a newbie high school instructor, Isaac finds himself struggling to honestly connect with his students without stepping on the toes of his test-scores-obsessed principal, Judd (Gary Murphy). Judd's football-playing son, Tom (Eric Ryan Swanson), has control issues with his remote father that somewhat mirror Isaac's problems with Jack (James Eldrenkamp). As the story unfolds, we learn that in addition to being scarred by his wife's early death, Jack carries terrible guilt from his part in a tragedy during the Vietnam War.
The thematic concerns and symbolism come through cleanly in director Maggie Speer's staging, aided by Dennis Mae's blue-tinted set, which creates an aquatic atmosphere framed by arches studded with tools of both the nautical and mathematical arts. But neither the script nor the performances, as of yet, do more than lightly touch on the surface of the deeper emotional wounds suggested. Jack is supposed to be suffering frompost-traumatic stress disorder, but aside from one flashback sequence, we don't really get a sense of how Jack's disturbance affected his relationship with his only son. He seems more like a garden-variety hands-off dad than a powder keg waiting for a match.
Nor does the Judd-Tom conflict feel grounded. Tom proclaims himself an agnostic, much to his dad's consternation — but this marks the first time that Judd has professed his faith in anything other than cementing his own academic fiefdom. And having a key plot twist dependent on Tom's finding out something about Jack on the Internet that was apparently unknown to Isaac strains credulity.
When Alex's writing breaks away from foregrounding the obvious metaphors (such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which Isaac uses as a touchstone for his own family situation), he finds breathing space for simple, honest and relatable moments, as when young Isaac shows off his budding mathematical bent for his dad using a counting "trick" with his fingers. But too often the characters feel at an arm's-length from us.
At one point, Isaac poses the question "Do practical problems have theoretical solutions, and do theoretical problems have practical solutions?" If Alex can find a stronger way to tie together the theoretical Big Issues in his play with the practical and flawed beating hearts of the characters, "Adrift" will have a worthier dramaturgical anchor.
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 90 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 773-404-7336 or greenhousetheater.org