Review: With ‘Black Sunday,’ TimeLine Theatre departs its longtime home with a Depression-era story

After 25 years and some 77 productions, TimeLine Theatre is bidding farewell to its longtime North Side home, a space inside what was the Wellington United Church of Christ, now Chabad East Lakeview. In Chicago theater terms, this is a famous space, not just for all TimeLine has achieved there but for the work of such influential predecessors at the European Repertory Company.

So this final opening night Wednesday had poignance, especially since the venerable designer Joe Schermoly had built an expansive, soaring set for the last show here, “Black Sunday” by Dolores Díaz. The piece is set in the upper Texas Panhandle in 1935, in the midst of the Dust Bowl, and Schermoly has drawn from his inner John Steinbeck to build out a cabin with a roof reaching skywards and a vista of the swirling sky. It’s a spectacularly immersive sight when you first walk into the theater, and a reminder that what has gone on here visually all these years often has exceeded what anyone reasonably could expect from a back room inside a place of worship.

TimeLine wanted to go out here on a new play by a Chicago writer (in this case with Texan origins) and the work is in many ways a familiar, Steinbeck- and Woody Guthrie-esque Dust Bowl mythology with an eye on including more of the Latino experience of the era, and adding in an anti-capitalist critique of the crop-price speculation that turned into a topsoil crisis, and such other more contemporary themes as environmental stewardship and climate change.

Heavy haded as they may be, there’s no question that the play’s points of view have a perfectly valid historical referent and I’ve no problem with puncturing those old exclusionary, Route 66-like myths focusing only on a subset of the Depression-era stories out there and submerging those that don’t fit. But pretty much as soon as David Parkes walks out as Pa, a gruff, stubborn, Depression-era patriarch, everyone in the theater knows of what he is a symbol, that he is going to resist any and all change and express nary a jot of human kindness. He does not disappoint. More nuance actually would have better served the play’s agenda.

The narrative of “Black Sunday” actually turns out to be strangely hard to follow, in this production at least, and director Helen Young’s production never fully gels when it comes to creating deep relationships between the four characters: Pa, Ma (Mechelle Moe), their restless daughter Sunny (Angela Morris), a farm worker named Jésus (Christopher Alvarenga) and Jim (Vic Kuligoski), a preacher.

The first part of the play is dominated by visions of the future seen by Ma, which is intriguing, but the problem there is that the audience has not yet come to know this family or what makes them tick. At times, it felt to me like Díaz was also interested in writing a screenplay, given the number of short scenes, abrupt shifts and narrative interpolations.

Rather than so much of that, this ambitious script needs more rich, human scenes that have time to breathe internally, that allow you to feel the effort and pain of ordinary people doing their best in impossible circumstances and that build dramatic tension.

Empathy is crucial to this kind of story and yet the play seems to jump away as soon as it threatens to enters tha space. Time and again, actors seem to end up shouting at each other, rather than trying to understand the other characters’ next moves. The issue here for both writer and director is building far more connective tissue, I think, and trusting actors to find each other in meaningful ways. Once that core is in place, audiences are at their most receptive for this message of changed perception

TimeLine is on a pretty long new journey now, sending its audiences to other theaters all of next season for a series of co-productions and then, one hopes, ready to settle in Uptown into a long-awaited and much-deserved theater of its own.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Black Sunday” (2.5 stars)

When: Through June 29

Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Tickets: $52-$67 at 773-281-8463 and