Chicago Theater Review: TO CATCH A FISH (TimeLine)

by Lawrence Bommer on May 3, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

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A ROTTEN KIND OF GUN CONTROL

It’s an inhuman term, “collateral damage.” Usually it’s reserved for supposedly dispensable victims, necessary sacrifices for a nobler cause. But what if the bigger picture ain’t noble? Then, as Arthur Miller hauntingly says in the passive voice, “Attention must be paid.” In the inaugural offering from TimeLine Theatre Company’s Playwright Collective, Brett Neveu, a much-praised and -produced Chicago playwright, does just that: He chronicles a cruel tale that sadly stands for many more abuses of authority.

Based on a real miscarriage of everything and interviews with the human casualties of corruption, Neveu’s compassionate To Catch a Fish is a rich revelation in Ron OJ Parson’s all-feeling staging. The work itself is an invaluable anomaly: Unlike most news stories, it’s more interested in the sufferers of a scam than the reasons for wrongdoing. The title refers both to the making of a fall guy and to his principal pleasure, fishing in the unclean Milwaukee River.

Neveu unspools the harrowing 2013 saga of Terry Kilbourn (actually, Chauncey Wright): Brain-damaged by a childhood accident, he’s simple-mindedly innocent — enough to become a pawn in “Operation Fearless.” This was an inept, 10-month sting run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the up-and-coming Milwaukee neighborhood of Riverwest.

In a misguided effort to get guns off the street and to arrest career criminals, ATF agents, along with reluctant local cops, set up a literal store “front.” Called “Fearless Distributors,” this fake enterprise purportedly sold shoes, toiletries, clothes, cigarettes, bongs, and auto parts. But it was in fact a Potemkin-style imposture, almost a rogue operation, meant to buy back guns — at inflated prices — and to prosecute the suckers who sold them.

Recruiting and preying on vulnerable, needy and, hence, expendable individuals, the clumsy scheme perpetrated bogus sales to meet ATF confiscation quotas. The hapless go-betweens who the feds befriended and betrayed were left in the lurch. Some, like Terry who had previous drug-related charges and was forbidden to possess a gun, were arrested for trafficking in illegal firearms.

(The feds would later say they were unaware of Terry’s disability. In any case the ATF’s egregious and opportunistic racial profiling was far from restricted to Milwaukee: Similar subterfuges in Chicago have resulted in more than 40 convictions. Chauncy Wright was indicted on seven drug and gun counts and received six months of house arrest and four years of probation.)

Neveu has a full grasp of what’s at stake in his story and, even better, a warm respect for the real folks caught in the crossfire (so to speak). He does full justice to the fate of trusting, mentally challenged Terry (a susceptibly sweet-tempered Geno Walker). This goofy “go-fer” is flattered and tricked into riding his bike to distribute fliers that extolled the phony thrift shop. He disregards the doubts of his girlfriend Rochelle Walker (Tiffany Addison as a stolid witness to Terry’s violent side). Terry also resists the tough love of his sardonically protective grandmother Brenda Cameron (Linda Bright Clay, a wise survivor who’s hapless to help).

Instead Terry heeds the bad advice of his calloused cousin Dontre Cameron (Al’ Jaleel McGhee, anguished by the guy’s lifelong failure). Dontre considers Terry a “Detour” sign stuck in the mud for life, but in his stumbling way he kind of cares. And, despite his streetwise wariness, he’s also a cheap and easy target for manipulation by the “good guys.”

Patronizing Terry as a local “king” to their “crew,” fully exploiting his insecurities, are two white ATF agents: Thuggish Dex Farwell (a menacing Stephen Walker), a barbecuing “buddy” who’s tone-deaf to fairness, and Jeno (Jay Worthington), a scrappily insidious handler who dismisses Terry as a minor means to a major end. For them black lives do not matter. Ambivalent about the ATM’s sketchy set-ups/frame-ups is an African-American local cop, Regina “G” Whitnall (a very conflicted Anji White): Her tortured exposition exposes the whole stinking mess.

Neveu is a tad coy, even teasing, in depicting the nuts and bolts of the ATF’s underground undertaking, which in any case is self-servingly imbecilic. (You’ll need to read the very helpful program and see the wonderful lobby display to get the complete context.) Neveu is much better at domestic details. Especially moving is a very believable scene between Brenda and Dontre: We see both loved ones in very different emotional turmoil, reaching out but not quite touching, let alone saving, each other.

The latest worthy offering to share stories that must be told, this world premiere is a primer on pain, strategically balancing danger and decency. Neveu powerfully details how official crimes, masked by government camouflage, look disarmingly conventional. Regrettably, that treachery is tragic as any gang bang.

photos by Lara Goetsch

To Catch a Fish
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2
(check for additional performances)
ends on July 1, 2018
for tickets, call 773.281.8463 x 6 or visit Timeline

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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