OFFBEAT: Steppenwolf's 'A Separate Peace' keeps audience interested and intrigued
ON THE BALL - - From left to right, Will Allen, Govind Kumar, Curtis M. Jackson, Damir Konjicija and Jake Cohen in star in the Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of "A Separate Peace" by Nancy Gilsenan and directed by Jonathan Berry. It continues until March 19, 2010.  (Photo by Peter Coombs)

During the introduction Saturday at the press opening of the play "A Separate Peace," part of Steppenwolf Theatre's Young Adults series, the audience was asked to give a show of hands for how many people had ever read the book of the same name by John Knowles.

I should have raised my hand.

I was sure I had read it, as part of one of my "assigned readings" during eighth grade.

Within moments of this superb production unfolding, it all came back to me.

"A Separate Peace," adapted by Nancy Gilsenan and directed by Jonathan Berry is a simple, well-told hour and 10-minute production (no intermission), featuring ensemble member Alan Wilder with Will Allan, Chance Bone, Jake Cohen, Curtis M. Jackson, Damir Konjicija and Govind Kumar.

It's a short run, just until March 19 in Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. 

Like myself, I'm sure many audience members who raised their hands also had this story included in mandatory reading during middle school.

In fact, Steppenwolf knows the core audience for a production such as this, which is why weekday matinees (Tuesdays-Fridays) are reserved for school groups, with Saturday and Sunday performances available to the public. 

Set at an all-boys boarding school in New England during World War II, "A Separate Peace" is a fascinating look into the dark side of adolescence.  

These are the young men at the stages of their lives when hormones are racing and everything is a competition.

It's also the time when it becomes painfully clear in this world, the strong survive and the weak are left behind.

The complex bonds of friendship between shy, studious Gene, played with heart and soul in a riveting performance by Jake Cohen and his athletic, daredevil roommate Finny, the ambitious and energetic Damir Konjicija, are tested with shocking consequences. 

Based on this best-selling novel, "A Separate Peace" is a quintessential American classic about trust and betrayal, war and peace.

My congrats to the Steppenwolf design team including, Chelsea Warren for an imaginative and workable set, with its ever-present looming campus tree limb as a focal point.

Alison Siple has stylized ideal costumes for the tone and time period and Heather Gilbert's lighting and use of shadows is spine-tingling.

All of the performances from the young actors were page-by-page perfect.

However, the casting of actor Konjicija as school jock Finny, though workable, was a bit of a stretch, since he didn't seem athletic in build.

The always sturdy Alan Wilder, a Steppenwolf ensemble member, also gets a brief turn in this production playing a faculty member at the school.

Will Allan plays the high-strung student Leper, delivering a powerful scene late in the production, while Chance Bone is a perfect choice for the role of Brinker, a young man destined to be a future politician.

Better than all the rest is Jake Cohen's portrayal of Gene. The acting is real and reaches in every degree to make the necessary connection with the audience. This is a young man emotionally torn and the production is proof there's a thin line between love and hate.

Tickets are $20 with $15 student tickets available via phone/box office at (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at philip.potempa@nwi.com or 219.852.4327.

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