Red Orchid’s “Simpatico” a Full Field of Intriguing Characters

Michael Shannon, Mierka Girten - h

Michael Shannon and Mierka Girten in A Red Orchid Theatre’s production of Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico.”

Reviewed By: Joseph Hillenmeyer

A Red Orchid Theatre is bringing its 20th season to a close with a play by Illinois native Sam Shepard and a cast of nearly all ensemble members, including A Red Orchid’s co-founders Michael Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen.

“Simpatico,” with direction by Red Orchid’s Dado, is now out of the gate and the tragic-comedy set among the backdrop of the thoroughbred racing industry – one with big winners and big losers – is a gripping tale of how love, greed, youth and lust can lead to snap decisions with life-long consequences.

For Carter (Shannon) that complication is his once-best friend and race-fixing partner Vinnie (Swearingen), who is a constant reminder of his shady entry into the racing industry – where is he now rich and powerful – 15 years earlier.

Vinnie still has photographs and correspondence that incriminate Carter and his wife, Rosie (Jennifer Engstrom), in a blackmail scheme against Simms (Doug Vickers), California’s racing commissioner who stumbled upon and threatened to end their lucrative fixes.

The evidence of course incriminates Vinnie as well, but with so much less to lose, he still uses the shoebox of photos and letters to lure Carter from Kentucky to California when he is lonely or in trouble.

We are first introduced to the pair during one of Carter’s aforementioned trips and it appears that this time Vinnie has had harassment charges brought against him by a woman he met at a bar – one whom he claims to be infatuated with.

While Carter goes to talk to the woman, Cecillia (Mierka Girten), Vinnie hops on a plane to Kentucky to put his conscience to rest and hopefully runaway with Rosie, his wife before Carter did the same 15 years earlier.

Vinnie finds Simms, but he quickly realizes the man is interested neither in exoneration or purchasing any relics from a life he has put behind him. While Vinnie’s visit doesn’t bring him the closure or fortune he hoped for, it does get the plot brewing, if not also a little convoluted. The character’s continue to chase one another while trying to outrun their pasts, and the Red Orchid cast keeps the play comedic and dramatic.

While Shannon and Swearingen certainly have great chemistry and give outstanding performances, the pace does become lethargic in the second act, with the dramatic climax between the main characters a little drawn out.

Simms also came off as a bit of paradox; while supposedly at terms with his fall from grace and finding loss to be a “powerful elixir,” Simms can’t seem to keep his heart rate down or stop from pouring glass after glass of bourbon anxiously down his throat. Vickers has him looking a little too much like Vinnie, the character to whom he couldn’t be more of a contradiction.

GuyVanSwearingen, Jennifer Engstrom - h

Guy Van Swearingen and Jennifer Engstrom in “Simpatico.”

Nevertheless, the aging horseman’s meeting with Cecillia is a highlight of the play, with Simm’s bizarre, random, yet poetic innuendo towards the unknown woman amusing and oddly touching.

With Cecillia, Girten gives the strongest performance of the production. Playing the least imbalanced of all the characters she is also a strange one: an aging hippie with an infatuation for The Kentucky Derby and American aristocracy. Not your usual combination, but she is believable and lovable throughout.

Although currently sold out – and likely due in no small part to the star power of Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon (“Man of Steel,” “Boardwalk Empire”) – the performance is certainly worth a call for stand by tickets.

“Simpatico” runs now through August 25 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. Currently sold out, call (312) 943 – 8722 for information on standby tickets. For calendar information visit