Culture Magazine

Review: Adrift (Polarity Ensemble Theatre, Azusa Productions)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Review: Adrift (Polarity Ensemble Theatre, Azusa Productions)   

Written by David Alex  
Directed by Maggie Speer
Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
thru Aug 26  |  tickets: $12-$20   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
   Read entire review



A fully-stocked ship-of-a-show that unfortunately runs aground


Review: Adrift (Polarity Ensemble Theatre, Azusa Productions)


Polarity Ensemble Theatre i/a/w Azusa Productions presents



Review by Clint May 

Sometime after someone thought to ask “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”, someone may have thought to ask, “Are we defined by our choices or do our choices define us?” The egg question is a famous koan that, while it has been answered in a literal sense, is best for illustrating a logical problem of a circular reference. Some critical choices can get a mind caught in a feedback loop of “if/then”s—or in the premiere of Adrift by David Alex, more of a “if only I had, then”s. A cerebral man of uncommon sensitivity begs in a soliloquy, “I need to go back—circle back—retell my story. You must help me find an answer. Will I ever forgive myself for the choice I made?” There’s that key word: circle. He takes us on a journey through his disjointed memories to look for answers to an unanswerable question. Circles don’t end, so neither can the circumnavigation of his mind as it grapples with this choice. As another character so pointedly asks of his instructor, why do we bother to prove something that’s already been proven? He might have also asked: where’s the point in a circle?

The memory of son Isaac (Colin Henry Fewell) plays out in non-linear fashion, beginning with a job interview. Preternaturally intelligent in several areas and oblivious to how to tactfully interact with those below the threshold of his IQ, Isaac still gets the high school math teaching gig from principal Judd (Gary Murphy). Isaac’s deceased Naval officer father Jack (James Eldrenkamp)—who suffered bouts of Post Dramatic Stress Disorder—“haunts” his memories, going so far as to appear as an avatar to critique his son from the grave. Time skips back and forth, from Isaac’s childhood to high school years and into middle age. In his first year as a teacher, he assigns essays in theoretical problems having practical solutions and practical problems having theoretical solutions, all while teaching the students about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel T. Coleridge. He also takes an empathetic shine to the principal’s son Tom (Eric Ryan Swanson), a troubled but intelligent lad who frequently clashes with his conservative father.

Review: Adrift (Polarity Ensemble Theatre, Azusa Productions)

Tom’s relationship with his father/principal is the standard angst-driven relationship sparked by rebellion on one side and oppression on the other. Isaac’s meddling with Tom to help him mend fences with his father is driven by a need to vicariously create a father/son bond he never had with his own distant dad. The greatest compliment Isaac got from his was that he “had balls.” Jack was a stereotypical officer/father figure, emotionally aloof and distanced by a son with whom he had almost nothing in common, while Isaac was equally stereotypical with his need of his father’s approval. In a critical moment in Isaac’s life, he abandons his math team when confronted by bullies. Jack gives him a lesson in choices and accountability that, despite their differences, builds his son’s moral framework.

Coleride’s famous albatross metaphor figures heavily in Alex’s script, as does the bonding power of golf, nautical themes and math/geometry analogies. A little symbolism goes a long way. Adrift’s constant reinforcement of its central conflicts and metaphors (even Dennis Mae’s set is replete with nautical and mathematical gadgets) gets in the way of a more naturalistic/organic narrative, and seems to patronize the audience by not believing enough in them to “get” it. Maybe that’s appropriate for a show about fathers and sons, but it’s a lot to pack into an 80 minute show.

Tightly directed as it is under Maggie Speer, the time-shifting plot, tonal shifts between family/psychological drama and multiple morals could stand to be aired out or pared back to make the entire work more approachable in place of indomitable. Fewell is an amiable nerd but beyond his five-year-old self doesn’t convey a sense of differentiation between the other stages through which he passes on his way to manhood, making for some confusing leaps. Eldrenkamp plays the dad with a mixture of reserved love and commitment to duty, but his bouts of PTSD and its fallout are not illuminated enough to have emotional gravitas. Swanson and Murphy have a more natural chemistry as a father and son, and Murphy has some of the most sublime moments trying to cope with the precocious Tom on one hand and the pedantic Isaac on the other.

Adrift has a high-minded goal of charting the depths of the philosophically imponderable. It’s disappointing, then, to see it moored in narratively muddy waters. Isaac’s critical choice is one that would continue to confound anyone, but it doesn’t feel intrinsic to the story when it arrives. Nor does his anguish leave an emotional impact because, like PTSD, the answer to Isaac’s problem is nothing dramatic in the 21st century (i.e., therapy). Had Adrift anchored itself more concretely to its central thematic core of the accountability to choices we make, it would have had more license to explore auxiliary paths without chasing its rudder.


Rating: ★½



Adrift continues through August 26th at Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Thursdays thru Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 2:30pm.  Tickets are $12-$20, and are available by phone (773-404-7336) or online through (check for half-price tickets at More information at  (Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission)

Polarity Ensemble Theatre logo
Azusa Production logo

Photos by Johnny Knight 




James Eldrenkamp (Jack), Eric Ryan Swanson (Tom), Colin Henry Fewell (Isaac), Gary Murphy (Judd)

behind the scenes

Maggie Speer (director); Dennis Mae (set); Jake Bray (lighting); Zoe Claster (stage manager); Staci Weigum (costumes); Jenna Moran (sound design); David Rosenberg (PR); Johnny Knight (photos)


Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog