Review of “Rightlynd” at Victory Gardens Theater

This is another piece I wrote for Rescripted.org as part of their young critics’ program — you can see it on their website here.

Rightlynd takes place in Chicago’s fictional 51st Ward, from which the play gets its name. The L doesn’t run in Rightlynd anymore, crime is on the rise, and crumbling apartment complexes and abandoned storefronts abound. People here feel crushed by the system: they are angry. But in playwright Ike Holter’s world, anger is a positive driving force in our current dystopia. Out of this bubbling sea of anger rises Nina Esposito (Monica Orozco), the one woman determined to change things around here. This play is the story of her struggle — not only to get herself elected Alderman, but to wield that power responsibly once she gets it.

Orozco is nothing less than a tour de force as our protagonist. Her Nina Esposito is forceful, ambitious, and badass — but she is also grounded, human, and terrified. Much of this comes from Holter’s dialogue (“I’m inspiring as fuck!” Nina shouts at one point), but Orozco’s accomplishment in keeping Esposito relatable cannot be understated. One monologue, where she spends a minute looking in the mirror after getting elected, deciding how she should address her constituents, is particularly powerful. It made me think of the anxiety I might have in her position, and makes us feel the weight on her shoulders.

Backing up Orozco is an ensemble that alternates between narrating Nina’s story and embodying a wide array of characters. The enthusiasm and passion for this play, from every actor onstage, is palpable. Holter’s language crackles with intent; each character is brazen and motivated and doesn’t have time for your shit. You can see how the writing and the actors fuel each other, and they are woven together with manic yet pinpoint direction from Lisa Portes. It’s exhilarating to watch, and funny enough that the drama never gets depressing.

We all know that power corrupts, but Rightlynd is more interested in the mechanics of that corruption. As Nina claws and scrabbles to the top, she often uses shady methods. But we root for her at the beginning because she’s the underdog, because the change she’s fighting for is sorely needed, because the struggle and suffering of the 51st Ward is so real, so clear, so present, that we want to see her succeed. And while the play is careful never to deny the undoubtedly evil power structures — racism, poverty, wealth, corruption — that Nina is fighting, it also makes clear that not all problems in government stem from evil. Sometimes, it’s just plain old human folly. Nina is flawed. That makes her likable, but it doesn’t make everything she does forgivable.

In order to fight poverty and racism, it’s not enough to reject the system; you have to change it from the inside. But in order for Nina to get inside that system, she has to adapt to it. And by adapting to it, she becomes part of it. This is not a fun transition to watch, because of course the system that enables poverty and racism is not broken. It is working exactly the way it’s supposed to.

Rightlynd makes you experience the grueling consequences of gentrification firsthand — and as a middle-class white kid who is a part of that gentrification, this was a difficult but necessary watch for me. No other show I’ve seen in Chicago has made me so keenly aware of my own whiteness while watching it, and this is part of what makes it genius. Like its protagonist, Rightlynd is not afraid to offend its audience with loud opinions. It is an unabashed tale of the South Side told to a Lincoln Park audience, and it is intensely aware of this, and therein lies its devastating effectiveness.

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