Most morally engaged plays about kids dealing drugs end with a corpse. Candido Tirado takes a different tack with "Momma's Boyz." He begins with one.
And then he tries to show how the young, dead body on the streets of Chicago might have been avoided.
The central conceit of "Momma's Boyz," a play that has been floating around for a decade or so but was revised for Teatro Vista's Chicago premiere and re-set in Chicago, is that three young drug dealers are offered the chance to revisit their choice to sell crack cocaine — a decision that ends with one of these friends in a funeral parlor. This isn't the only play to move backward in time or to offer its characters the opportunity to correct past mistakes, but it's an especially poignant device at this particular time.
You just have to listen to the local news to hear about some chance event, some spur-of-the-moment act, that sent a bullet through a young Chicagoan's body. And that's a one-way trajectory. By the time the regret kicks in, the cameras have usually moved on to the next street corner. By moving backward — and offering a chance for absolution — Tirado not only avoids the familiar trajectory of plays such as this, but also is able to combine a cautionary tale with a spirit of hope.
To its credit, "Momma's Boyz" isn't by any means strictly a stay-away-from-drugs polemic. It has a more freewheeling and theatrical tone than the harshly realistic TV show "The Wire," but it nonetheless explores the appeal of low-level dealing and the paradoxically stimulating rivalries of economics and personality that it creates. Shine (Marvin Quijada), the young man whom we see dead in that first scene, even dispenses his own kind of anti-drug message to his customers, refusing service to those he deems too young or in too deep. The aptly named Thug (Jessie David) is the most volatile and unpredictable of this trio, but we feel as if we understand him. Still, the character with whom we identify the most is Mimic (Steve Casillas), a well-meaning young man who dreams of a career in the Chicago theater.
The shifts in time take a bit of following in Ricardo Gutierrez's intimate production, which doesn't catch all the intermittent sadness or the sharp edges within the script. The piece could use more moments when the music stops and the pain begins. And the potentially devastating power of the first scene is, I think, undermined by having the dead Shine cavorting comically around next to his own coffin, even though all are clearly trying to show us the vibrancy that has been lost with this young life.
But the show is very zesty, uninhibited and fast-moving, and the three young actors are just terrific. Casillas is particularly fine: Honest, moving and determined, he forges a character in whom we find ourselves very invested. That's the strength of a show that you find yourself hoping some at-risk students will be able to find their way to see. These young men have energy, smarts, compassion and inherent management chops. It's just that this kind of do-over is, alas, restricted to the theater.
When: Through Dec. 4
Where: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $25; 312-666-4659 or chicagodramatists.org