“Sacrifices just ain’t romantic,” declaimed Dad, a character at the center of Christian Michael Smith’s new play “Home Work,” as he describes the difference between his working-class life in the auto factory and the life he imagines for his college-aged son.

A script-in-progress by Smith, a Hyde Parker and sociologist of education, “Home Work” details the struggles of a mid-century working-class family in Lansing, Michigan, reeling from the loss of its matriarch, institutionalized misogyny and failed American dreams.

The play, a story like something out of a Saul Bellow novel, was presented by the Hyde Park Community Players in their latest reading on April 12 at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn Avenue. Unique to the Players’ monthly reading series, Smith invited new faces to the retinue, recruited from theater classes at Chicago Dramatists, several whom returned to public performance that very night. Players’ regular Laura MacGregor held the production together with her narration of the sparse stage directions.

Across the play’s two acts, the audience slowly learns of the cyclical institutional violences and experiences wrought on each character, some lovingly only given nominal names (Dad, Mom). We find the perpetually working father (Ezra Chomak) who sacrifices his life-force for his idealized notion of the family as well as the first female tenure-track mathematics professor at Michigan State (Tiara Latoya Bryant) who enacts the same kind of unreasonable demands on her maid as the faceless institution demands of her: namely, making her classes harder and less engaging in the name of academic rigor. Caught in between the two is Betty (Nina Strong), the superior intellect overshadowed by her older brother (Greg Gruba), a first-generation college student who is disconnected from his single parent by the deforming institution of academia and feels forced to cheat on his math homework to keep up his 4.0 appearances. In addition to the characters’ unspoken psychological depths, the script is littered with academic ephemera; Burr puzzles, definitions of chiasmus, and the impending threat of Sputnik IV pepper the play’s vocal texture. The lure of an ideal American life, circa 1958, explodes among the impossibility of its own contradictions: there are simply too many mouths to feed, someone’s dreams need to be squashed or perverted

While ostensibly a staged reading, the actors made full use of makeshift stage, vocal tics, and their bodies, creating a vivid sense of a shared family living room that extended through the space. Mac Hillocks’ staid impersonation of “the man” in various guises — Department Chair, Bank Manager, Dean of Admissions of the Honors College, Dean of Admissions — Strong’s hopeful and assertive body work, or Bryant’s barely controlled screams of desperation against her department chair’s accusations of “liberant deviations.” Even the irksome arrogance of the not-quite perfect son, played in dripping irony by Gruba, delivers a full range of desperation, self-realization and acceptance.

Playing with lore from Smith’s own family history, the drama tempts the possibility of resolution through flights of fancy, the feminist utopia of Vassar, and fleeting moments of entertaining a newborn. The joy of a good math grade, a far-off college admission and an unasked act of kindness generate the emotional engine of the play. The relentless struggles to make it, however, are never far away, epitomized by the nearness of unpaid and unappreciated labor.

A newfound vernacular of a morality play, “Home Work” does not quite let anyone off the hook. It punishes each character for the very act of having desires, of thinking about possible futures, even if those futures are perpetually a false double of their present life, a so-called “tree, of many, one.” Self-reflection is demanded but never quite able to be achieved, short of a shouting match — one of the only true forms of self-expression and directness in a shamefully repressed social landscape.

After the reading, Smith welcomed the actors back to the stage for a talkback, and to hear audience suggestions and reactions — even his mother, the real-world daughter of Betty, was in attendance. Audience members doubted the veracity of the play’s 1950s setting, while suggesting that the problems it addresses both felt dated and all-too contemporary, the uncomfortable realism toeing the line between historical accuracy and emotional availableness. Some even noted their growing discomfort at the pitch of the production, which never quite let up until the final line, and felt like a voyeuristic look into a turbulent home life, akin to the gritty realism of a Charles Burnett feature.

The company’s most striking moments arrived in humorous or tensely delivered scene-ending lines, brief moments of cutting summary that paced the internal structure of the play. The quiet reveals and repeated lines of dialogue (“This is Rick’s day,” “really great question.” “I am neither tacky nor crude”) render a series of psychologically deep minds, struggling to come to terms with the facts of its own life. The absences and overwrought presences of speech carry “Home Work” into its fanciful, if possible, final scenes, when the carefully constructed castle of intertwining desires, selfish needs, and territorial habits come alight, neither tacky nor crude but enunciated.

The next Hyde Park Community Players staged reading is in memory of playwright Christopher Durang on Friday, May 3 at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn Avenue. The reading begins at 8 p.m.


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