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Review: The Qualms (Steppenwolf Theatre)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Review: The Qualms (Steppenwolf Theatre)   
The Qualms

Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
thru Aug 31  |  tickets: $20-$86   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
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Provocative politics abound in ‘Qualms’


Review: The Qualms (Steppenwolf Theatre)


Steppenwolf Theatre presents


The Qualms

Review by Lauren Whalen 

Sex is a political process. Among the physical and emotional elements lurks a constant give-and-take, promises either fulfilled or not, endless thought and planning, and sometimes manipulation as well. In The Qualms, playwright Bruce Norris tackles swinging in suburbia with as much sharp wit, uncomfortable humor and dead-on human commentary as he used in the Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of gentrification, Clybourne Park. And just as Steppenwolf’s 2011 production of Clybourne Park was a stirring game-changer, so is their world premiere of The Qualms, thanks to Pam MacKinnon’s terrific direction of a top-notch ensemble.

Review: The Qualms (Steppenwolf Theatre)
It’s a typical summer night – only not so typical for Kristy (Diane Davis) and Chris (Greg Stuhr). The newlyweds have road-tripped to the home of a couple they met while vacationing in Cabo. Teri (Kate Arrington) and Gary (Keith Kupferer) have a well-stocked bar, plenty of food and a fancy grill, and are part of a polyamorous lifestyle that includes regular partner-swapping gatherings with two other couples. Truths are revealed, experience (sexual and otherwise) debated and feelings and fists come to blows as Kristy and Chris struggle to understand a way of life that is at once blindingly foreign and utterly normal.

Norris has an unparalleled and uncanny ability to draw audiences in and keep them holding on until blackout. Throughout The Qualms, I heard audience members audibly wince and gasp, as well as applaud when a character delivered a well-placed quip or shocking revelation. At one point, I (a nonviolent person) found myself saying out loud, “Someone needs to punch that guy in the face.” (I won’t say when.) Norris’ dialog and emotional beats are so searing, yet relatable: they cut right to the core of humanity, often observations and thoughts that we don’t like to acknowledge but are glaringly present all the same. Uncomfortable humor has been in fashion for a good decade or so, yet Norris never makes audience members squirm just for the heck of it. His words are uncomfortable because they are true.

MacKinnon doesn’t miss an opportunity with Norris’ crackling writing, while keeping the show at a fast clip that still allows the audience to process what they are witnessing. Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design is stellar as always, conjuring a perfectly maintained (though television-less, as Teri notes more than once) and manicured home in Every-wealthy-suburb, USA. Matt Hawkins’ fight choreography conveys a real and palpable tension, staying in context with intelligent grace. And Janice Pytel’s costumes are a vibrant mix of beachy casual and overtly sexy, with each couple somewhat color-coordinated – not like they planned it, but as if they’re in sync as only couples can be.

Review: The Qualms (Steppenwolf Theatre)

The entire cast is stunning, each perfectly suited to Norris’ multifaceted words and personalities. David Pasquesi has considerably less dialog than some, but exhibits phenomenal, dark comic timing as a war vet who takes pleasure in toying with the easily-rattled Chris. Davis navigates Kristy’s emotional journey with aplomb, and Kupferer is admirably blustery as the good-time guy and nonjudgmental host. As Chris, Stuhr projects bafflement, which is relatable until it turns sinister and back to almost-human again. However, the two real standouts are Steppenwolf company member Arrington, and Clybourne Park alum Kirsten Fitzgerald. The former gives blowsy masseuse Teri a ditzy yet lovable vibe that slowly grows into something far more grave, while always maintaining the character’s surprising savvy. And as Deb, a merry widow with a young boytoy (Paul Oakley Stovall), Fitzgerald hits every syllable with a deep, flawless understanding of where Deb has been, and who she will be.

Though there’s no nudity (and very little skin bared, in fact), The Qualms is one of the most naked plays I’ve ever seen. In terms of intimacy, these characters gradually put it all out there, and by the end hold nothing back. With fantastic writing, robust direction and brilliant acting, The Qualms is an intense 90-minute journey that’s personal, hilarious and ultimately rewarding.


Rating: ★★★½



The Qualm continues through August 31t at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesday at 7:30pm Wednesdays 2pm and 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays 3pm and 7:30pm.  Tickets are $20-$86, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at  (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission)

Review: The Qualms (Steppenwolf Theatre)

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Kate Arrington (Teri), Owais Ahmed (Delivery Boy), Karen Aldridge (Regine), Diane Davis (Kristy), Kirsten Fitzgerald (Deb), Keith Kupferer (Gary), David Pasquesi (Roger), Paul Oakley Stovall (Ken), Greg Stuhr (Chris); Manny Buckley, Michael Dailey, Al Evangelista, Tom Hickey, Jordan King, Allie Long, Jennifer Mathews (understudies)

behind the scenes

Pam MacKinnon (director), Todd Rosenthal (scenic design), Janice Pytel (costume design), Russell H. Champa (lighting design), Rick Sims (sound design), Erica Daniels (casting), Matt Hawkins (fight choreographer), Cecilie O’Reilly (dialect coach), Laura D. Glenn (stage manager), Christine D. Freeburg (assistant stage manager), Martha Lavey (artistic director), David Hawkanson (executive director), Devon de Mayo (asst. director), Eric Backus (sound design assistant), Steve Sorenson (lighting assistant), Zoe Shiffrin (asst. charge artist), AJ Littlefield (wardrobe), Joe Creen (running crew), Christina Masnato (production assistant), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Review: The Qualms (Steppenwolf Theatre)


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