When one talks about child-focused serial killings, humor rarely enters the discussion. But in playwright Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, which opened Steppenwolf's 31st season this week, humor pervades the dark, harrowing play.
Set in two acts, The Pillowman takes place in a nameless, timeless totalitarian dictatorship -- it could be a shot against censorship in the '50s, a take on life behind the Iron Curtain or a modern-day rub against murderous regimes in the developing world. In any case, The Pillowman is a smartly written, brilliantly acted show. It's a dark yet viciously funny play that focuses on two brothers -- one a talented yet unknown writer (Jim True-Frost), the other his mentally challenged charge (Michael Shannon).
Over the course of the two hours and 15 minutes, the brothers discover and reveal dark secrets about each other that will quickly change the course of their lives. The show opens with the bespectacled writer being interrogated by two hot-headed police officers. At first he's unsure of why he's there and begins to suspect the police don't like the content of his stories. We soon learn he's a suspect in the alleged murders of three children -- murders that are acted out based on the writing in his stories. Through the interrogation, we learn that the writer has a warped past that flawlessly comes out in his twisted writing, where kids are, in many cases, inhumanely maimed, murdered, tossed aside and neglected.
The play is peppered with emotion, but one that comes out time and again is trust in and love for your fellow man. Despite the characters' shortcomings, you can't help but feel sorry for them all. The interpersonal relationships uncover a lot about what we like and dislike about ourselves, but at the end of the day, you can't help but like each of them.
The Pillowman, directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton, runs through Nov. 12 and originally played in London and most recently on Broadway.
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