Love lives don't get easier after college in 'A Swell in the Ground'

Monday, 23 October 2017, 08:11:17 PM. REVIEW: 'A Swell in the Ground' at Gift Theatre. Janine Nabers' world premiere play is about angst and relationships after college. (2.5 stars)

A former Julliard fellow, the New York-based writer Janine Nabers clearly is well acquainted with the years when former students of prestigious schools hit New York City and find out a few hard truths about themselves and those they thought they loved.

“A Swell in the Ground,” which could well be a pitch for a Netflix series, looks at a quartet of such hyperarticulate Ivy League characters, all trying to reconcile the disparity in their relative levels of achievement even as they deal with the inevitable blows that hit a young professional life, and a young relationship, and the disappearance of the comforts of undergraduate life. It’s all a fancy world away from Jefferson Park. But good for Gift Theatre for taking a risk on a world premiere (the audience Friday night was smaller than the piece deserved).

The travails of the urban 20-something hardly is unchartered territory, but the distinctive aspect of “A Swell in the Ground” is (aside from the important inclusion of African-American characters in a genre that often lacks them) the chronology of the storytelling. This play does not move forward or backward, but backward and forward. We see the couple Nate (Keith Neagle) and Olivia (Sydney Charles) in, say, 2007, then a couple of years before, and then maybe several years later. You know where you are by a date projected on a two-level set by Eleanor Kahn that is shoehorned awkwardly into the Gift’s space.

The playwright’s sympathies lie mostly with Olivia, who has to deal with her guy’s running mouth and residual juvenile tendencies, both factors leading to a tenuous relationship, as well as the possibilities and challenges represented by old friends Charles (Andrew Muwonge) and Abigail (Darci Nalepa), both in some ways personifications of what might have been, or still could be.

There is a haunting, even a mournful, quality to the play, which is the aspect of this work that I liked best. A lot of us are bad at relationships when we are young, and we do serious damage to the people we love even when these should be the most exciting years of our professional lives. With Neagle her aptly annoying foil, Charles, a very versatile Chicago actress, captures that quality very well. You feel some sadness behind her character’s eyes — a disconnect between the outer facade and the inner insecurity, a worry that nothing is stable. It’s rich work.

This is not the easiest track to follow, though, and the reason for the chronological shifts is not always made clear. It is, I think, causal, in that Nabers wants us to see how this led to that, but, frankly, the relationship is not always clearly causal enough and that means that narrative tension does not build. You feel like you are watching vistas and episodes — very interesting and involving scenes, for sure — but the work needs far more attention to its overall construction, a remaining challenge with which the director, Chika Ike, could also help.

None of the many transitions actually build tension. They’re just flat. And there’s no viable climax yet: The audience at the performance I attended did not seem to know the play was over. All of that has to be addressed; these are, of course, the ways in which theater differs from TV. There is a long way to go in one hour and 40 minutes.

But there are some cutting scenes, believe me, all worried over by a very competent cast probing such unchanging challenges as commitment phobia, the residual impact of collegiate indiscretion and, well, the thing that brings a lot of relationships to their knees: one party being aimless and the other intensely ambitious. That’s the swell in the ground for a lot of lovers, and there can be a wasp’s nest inside. Now this promising play must better make us feel its sting.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “A Swell in the Ground” (2.5 stars)

When: Through Dec. 10

Where: Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Tickets: $30-$40 at 773-283-7071 or

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