Claudia Allen’s affectionate, enjoyable but superficial adaptation of Stuart Dybek’s “I Sailed With Magellan” belongs squarely in the noble effort category. Allen had some pretty serious challenges to confront, primarily the fact that the book simply doesn’t constitute natural source material for the stage. Written in 2003, Dybek’s book provides an elegant portrait of a boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, fleshing out time and place and people in a series of affiliated short stories, without a clear narrative throughline.
The obvious choice would have been to use narration to connect the dots, particularly since the stories emanate from the single perspective of Perry Katzek, who ages from about 10 or so up into his later teens. But Allen is craftier than that and clearly wanted to avoid being too literal by simply voicing Dybek’s prose onstage.
Instead, she makes an earnest attempt at a poetic memory play, breaking up and shuffling the various tales as a means of evoking the complex inter-relationships among them. So a scene from one story set at Lake Michigan is simultaneously juxtaposed with a later one, a choice facilitated by the casting of two Perrys — young Perry (Bubba Weiler) and a teenage one (Justin Cholewa) — as well as by Jeff Bauer’s flexible unit set and Mike Tutaj’s projections, which take us into the lake itself when a character dives in.
But while Allen succeeds in providing just enough overarching narrative to keep the audience engaged, weaving together disparate stories into Perry’s coming-of-age, she falls short in depicting the characters who surround and influence Perry, like his damaged, music-loving Uncle Lefty (Lance Baker) or his comically frugal father (Marc Grapey), whom he calls “Sir.”
Despite casting some fine actors, neither Allen nor director Sandy Shinner find a way to externalize the deeper interiors of these human beings and establish the emotional undercurrents that affect Perry’s own development. Yes, we hear mention of Lefty’s time in Korea, from which he never really recovered, and the fact that Perry’s dad, a Polish immigrant, lost his own father very young and had to support a large family. But somehow these figures never feel fully informed by their pasts.
The result becomes a piece buoyed mostly by punchlines rather than relationships, infusing the evening with a slightly sitcommish tone that doesn’t really represent Dybek’s nuanced and very dimensional take on the multiethnic neighborhood.
The most meaningful and emotionally complex of Dybek’s stories — the tale of a “blue boy” who dies young, and whom Perry tries to write about — is saved mostly for last, and ends up a mere simplistic shadow of itself, as Allen attempts to add interpretation to a story that’s most powerful for its refusal to meet expectations.
Despite the flaws, there’s no question that Allen’s overall affection for Dybek’s work and for Chicago itself emerges, and Shinner’s cast makes the most of their likeable characters. That makes this show a potential local favorite.