Review: ‘Thanksgiving Play’ at Steppenwolf Theatre is a biting satire, humanly played

After a significant spell in the doldrums, it is becoming clear that Steppenwolf Theatre is in a major upswing.

That’s not because I think the Chicago company’s new production of Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play” is a great show (I do not). I saw this same satire on Broadway in 2023 and that production was just wretched: a purported comedic endeavor where nobody could even have bought a laugh.

But thanks to director Jess McLeod, who gets the tone just right, and a fabulous, take-no-prisoners lead performance from Audrey Francis (also Steppenwolf’s co-artistic director), this is a vastly better Chicago staging. It’s a reminder of why so many of us believe that when Steppenwolf leans into its justly admired brand, and when it imparts a deeper level of truth than other theaters typically manage, even on Broadway, it will thrive.

“The Thanksgiving Play” is, for the most part, a satire of progressive white America, especially the nonprofit world of “holding space,” “lifting up,” “checking my privilege” “allyship” and other such nomenclature where creative, grant-dependent white people try and do all the right political things except get out of the way themselves.

Specifically, here, the target is an elementary school pageant set for Thanksgiving Day. A teacher, Logan (Audrey Francis), savvy when it comes to appealing to funders, and her colleague Jaxton (Nate Santana) are working on a politically correct Thanksgiving play, maybe one that reflects much of the violence against native people that is endemic to the circumstance around the holiday. They’ve hired a Los Angeles actress, Alicia (Paloma Nozicka), who they think is Native American, but it turns out she’s a white woman with multiple headshots reflecting her “flexible look” for different gigs, and also a mostly hapless local historian, Caden (Tim Hopper), a nerd who knows many of the facts but still is a dweeby poster child for the old ways of doing. The action of the play follows this wacko quartet as they try and fail to do the right thing, not least because they have no Native Americans in the room.

FastHorse’s main point, which you grasp pretty early on, is that Thanksgiving is so morally bankrupt in its entire ethos that somehow creating a more sensitive kid’s version of the Pilgrim’s famous feast is doomed to be far worse than a politically oblivious “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” special. Indeed, FastHorse is far more sympathetic toward the actress who makes no pretension about doing anything other than making a buck than she is to the earnest reformers who just dig themselves into an ever-bigger hole.

These are not easy roles to play, given that if the performers lean into the stereotyping, all of the comedy dies fast, as it did on Broadway. But Francis and the equally excellent Nozicka have found some of the sympathetic center of their characters. Better yet, McLeod drives the show forward towards its central unachievable goal, allowing these mostly pathetic characters to least the chance to impress an audience with their fortitude.

FastHorse is a skilled writer, and a caustic one, too. It’s always tricky to combine satire (which attacks power without regard to deserving) with moralism (which argues for a cause) and that’s an issue here toward the end, which does not maintain the wicked energy of what has transpired before. And it’s a bit insider baseball at times.

It was, though, fun to sit in the round with an opening night audience of many white theater people looking around and wondering if it was OK to laugh at what were, in essence, versions of many of themselves (“Thanksgiving Play” recalls Ike Holter’s delicious theater satire “Red Rex”). But as the great radical theater artist Dario Fo famously noted, some criticism serves to increase a group’s sense of self-worth, which perhaps explains an especially oversized reaction to a gag involving the word “dramaturg.” FastHorse knew what she was doing.

This play is a takedown of virtue signaling, that common social media phenomenon where someone appears to be doing something righteous and yet really is just promoting themselves. And it’s also an interesting meditation on one of the biggest tensions in the progressive universe: the ones between “doing better,” as the phrase goes, or acknowledging that “doing better” actually means self-erasure. Nobody likes that and yet nobody wants to admit it. That’s the message of this clever show.

Still, I find myself resisting the targeting of a white elementary school teacher just doing her best under difficult circumstances, you might say. It’s a measure of the excellence of Francis’ performance that I felt that far deeply the second time around.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Thanksgiving Play” (3 stars)

When: Through June 2

Where: Steppenwolf’s Ensemble Theater, 1646 N. Halsted St.

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Tickets: $20-$86 at 312-335-1650 and