Review: In ‘Wipeout’ by Rivendell Theatre, riding the waves with a spirited older trio

The much-loved crew behind Chicago’s Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, a storefront theater on Chicago’s Far North Side, is seeing a lot of success on the festival circuit this spring with the movie “Ghostlight,” a film (directed by the longtime Chicago actress Kelly O’Sullivan) that could bring a lot of new attention to Chicago theater.

But on Ridge Avenue, it’s back to business as usual with a new show, “Wipeout,” the story of three older women who take up surfing lessons off the California coast, as directed by Tara Mallen. It’s performed by Meg Thalken, Celeste Williams and Cindy Gold as the three women set loose upon the waves with Glenn Obrero playing Blaze, their handsome young instructor.

The appeal of Aurora Real de Asua’s play is that it features characters whose points of view often are overlooked in our ageist society. For an hour and a half, the neophyte surfing women talk about matters of note to their generation, whether that’s the mental decline of close friends (Gold’s Gary is fighting the arrival of dementia), marriage, losing partners, post-menopausal sex and their fight to stay relevant in a country far more dismissive of the contributions of its seniors than elsewhere on the planet.

The illusion of surfing is achieved, with wit, by designer Caitlyn Girten with a wave piece (not unlike the ones at Chicago street fairs), a video backdrop and little individual wheeled contraptions used to mimic boards. The surfing really a device here for all of the above conversations and, of course, all of the typical stranger-in-a-strange-land conventions of this genre.

I wouldn’t expect to be surprised by anything; you’ll guess where the play is going, I think, and I wouldn’t call it a deep dive into surf culture. It’s a piece looking to give voice and redress a power imbalance, and so it does.

I greatly enjoyed all of the performances, with Gold especially managing to avoid condescending to her character’s dilemma, even as she does not shirk from its challenges. But I went back and forth on how authentic I felt these figures to be. Real de Asua, who has talent as a writer, is much younger than her characters and I imagine she wanted to pay tribute here to the spirited and capable older women she admired in her youth, which is admirable. That said, you do sometimes feel like these characters are spending more time talking about being old than older people actually do. Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.

So here we have a capable young playwright, a trio of decent and highly experienced actors all with great senses of humor, and a fine idea for a play with lots of novel physicality. There is a fresh situation and things to talk about. But where did this writer really want her play to go, beyond finding the pleasures of the oceans still being available at any age? That, I think, is still a work in progress.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Wipeout” (2.5 stars)

When: Through April 6

Where: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N. Ridge Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Tickets: $39 at 773-334-7288 and