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Illinois State University's School of Theatre and Dance pays homage to two of the program's most admired and prolific alums, John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf, with its current production of Lanford Wilson's "Balm in Gilead," on stage through Saturday in the Center for the Performing Arts.

Malkovich and Metcalf, original members of Chicago's renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company, devoted much of the early 1980s to Wilson's gritty yet compassionate work, his first full-length play, performing first in Chicago and then in New York, at the Circle Repertory Theatre, both to critical acclaim.

Wilson's work tells the stories of those people that most would rather not acknowledge — society's outcasts — shedding not a light of judgment, but one of hope, a celebration of survival, which for these desperate characters is never guaranteed.

The play takes its name from the Old Testament, Book of Jeremiah, 46:11: "Go up in to Gilead, and take balm, O virgin, the daughter of Egypt: In vain shalt thou use many medicines; for thou shalt not be cured."

The story is set in a greasy, all-night diner (impeccably created by scenic designer Jordan Gerow), which is home to a hodgepodge of night-crawlers: prostitutes, junkies, hustlers and thugs, who find their only comforts in the booths they inhabit, even though the owner charges them 50 cents for the privilege.

Director John Tovar guides the sizable ensemble with an emphasis on the humanity of their characters rather than the opposite, leading to a compelling evening of theater.

Structurally, the play features overlapping dialogue and random moments of song and commentary, which provide a welcome break from the struggles of cynical drug dealer Joe (Steve Carr) and hooker with a heart of gold, Darlene (Angie Milton), who meet, intertwine quickly and then try to figure it all out.

Joe, however, is in deep trouble with a low life named Chuckles, and though he doesn't realize it yet, he is a man that is running out of time.

Costume designer Dillon Knapp, along with hair and makeup designer Megan Wood have successfully transported us back to the turbulent ’60s, right down to the big hair and heavy eyeliner of the day, and the dark circles and pallor of the diner denizens.

Along with the impressive performances by Carr and Milton, "Balm in Gilead" also features Troy Schaeflein as Dopey, a junkie and something of a narrator; Tori DeLaney as Fick, Betsy Diller as Ann; and Jack VanBoven, Dylan Dewitt and Anne Marie Owens as the cafe's chain smoking staff.

Stiller is a freelance writer who reviews plays for The Pantagraph.

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