Late in Ike Holter's play Sender, 20-going-on-30 Jordan, in a burst of pantheistic zeal, hurls his cigarettes off the third-floor back porch to the street below. Almost immediately, he regrets his action, lamenting, "I just threw my addiction off the roof!"—to which his companions reply, "The only addiction you need now is us."
The awakening of aging adolescents caught up in co-dependent stasis is not a phenomenon restricted to rural high school sports heroes or suburban prom queens-turned-housewives and mothers. Our play's setting is an urban conclave identified by the author only as "Hipsterville, Chicago" and its action begins on the morning after a memorial celebration for Leonard "Lynx" Harris—missing, believed dead, this year past.
In his absence, his comrades have moved on to varying degrees: hard-drinking Tess went into rehab, and meek Jordan found a job with Groupon, while pragmatic Cassandra embraced the whole career-marriage-children-401K package and is determined to transform her associates into likewise responsible adults. A major obstacle to her plan, however, is the unexpected return of the long-lost Lynx from what turns out to have been a retreat in the Wisconsin woodlands. Will his resurrection restore his status among his peers, or will a single goodbye have provided those he left behind all the closure they needed?
Unlike the sweeping social issues at the roots of the dramas earning Holter his reputation as one of Chicago's hottest young writers—the Stonewall riots in Hit The Wall, the current public-education crisis in Exit Strategy—the world view explored in Sender is almost painfully intimate. Future scholars may attempt to impose microcosmic dimensions on the trio of uncommitted drifters teetering on the farthest boundaries of youthful indecision, assigning each of the personalities a demographic label, or perhaps declaring Lynx to be a Peter Pan figure, seducing his peers with fantasies of idyllic adventure—but this is not Holter's purpose.
"These are the men and women you see walking around Chicago every day. They buy groceries at Jewel and eat at Big Star and bike to parties and pass out next to you on the train. They aren't trying to save a school or start a queer revolution or figure out how to fight crime or whether aliens exist. The characters [in this play] are dealing with issues that may seem small, but are really profoundly life-altering. I'm writing about my generation as people just being people—and yes, that's pretty new for me."
What about Lynx? Is he Peer Gynt or Huckleberry Finn? Holter sighs, "His very mystery is the heart of the play. I'm sure there's room for literary interpretations when you have a character who comes back from the dead. Many of the audience members at previews have told me, however, that they recognize what Lynx is all about the minute he opens his mouth. He's that somebody who wanders in and out of your life in times of crisis—or potential change, at least—who knows the best and worst side of you, and who can save your life or push you off a bridge. They've been there with this kind of person, and they know what he's up to. I think maybe everybody has met a Lynx."
Although Holter's enigma is relatively benign, his text's long silences, punctuated by bursts of echolalic fury, require the actors and director to conjure subtext to fill the huge expanses of scripted ellipses. Again, Holter insists that these erratic starts and stops are not merely Pinteresque affectation. "Real conversations often proceed super fast, but always you get moments of intense full-stop silence. In a play, after the audience grows accustomed to a certain tempo and rhythm, not talking can be more informative than pages and pages of inner monologue. Leaving the neighborhood where these people live unspecific is also meant to spark the audience's imagination."
Holter has nothing but praise for the cast of actors assembled by Shade Murray for the world-premiere production at A Red Orchid Theater. "This cast is FIRE!," he said. "Mary Williamson, who plays Tess, has been in the show since the reading at the Victory Gardens Ignition Festival. So has our director, Shade Murray, and the insanely talented dramaturg Josh Altman. All of the Red Orchid artists put their soul into everything they do. There's a palpable energy you can feel when you walk into the lobby. It even sticks to the seats!"
No playwright can be expected to write the same kind of play every time (e.g., the eclectic output of Pulitzer-winning Tracy Letts), and Holter remains unconcerned by the prospect of supporters painting him into a corner. "I try to maintain a diverse range," he said. "My next two plays, for example, are miles apart—one is about Chicago vigilantes today, the other is about a runaway slave hundreds of years ago. The danger when you always write the same thing is that you start to get comfortable—and nobody gets excited by 'comfortable.'"