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Going Undercover To Catch a Fish

A well-intentioned man gets caught in the net of a government operation in Brett Neveu's new drama.

Tiffany Addison and Geno Walker in a scene from To Catch a Fish, directed by Ron O.J. Parson, at TimeLine Theatre Company.
(© Lara Goetsch)

In 2012, a man name Chauncey Wright set out to find a job and found himself federally indicted. Wright had a sub-60 IQ and functioned at the mental level of a kindergartner, but he was unwittingly hired by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to take part in an undercover sting operation to find illegal weapons in Milwaukee, and when the sting was shut down, Wright was taken in as well. With Brett Neveu's new play To Catch a Fish, TimeLine Theatre Company has dramatized these events, changing all the names and some of the facts to craft a moving character study about a family in over their heads.

The childlike Terry (Geno Walker), who suffered brain damage at an early age, is easily manipulated into working for the operation. At first, Terry rides his bike around the city, distributing fliers in exchange for cigarettes and new clothes. Soon, his "new friends" are asking him to spread the word that they're looking to buy guns illegally. Terry's eagerness to please and unquestioning nature make him a perfect pawn, much to the dismay of his girlfriend, Rochelle (Tiffany Anderson), and his cousin Dontre (Al'Jaleel McGhee), who fear for his well-being.

Walker's imposing physique is tempered with an open, aimless physicality and a megawatt smile that illustrates Terry's mental condition without descending into problematic mannerisms or clichés. The people in Terry's life may lack the emotional vocabulary to express the depth of their concern for him, but the actors give achingly sympathetic performances that speak volumes. Linda Bright Clay is heartbreaking as Terry's grandmother, Brenda, who has grown defensive and emotionally withholding after years of guilt and loss weighing on her. Brenda raised Dontre as well as Terry, and the best moments in To Catch a Fish come whenever Clay and McGhee are left onstage together. Their lifetimes of history make for an emotional tug-of-war that is potent even when bubbling beneath the surface.

While Terry and his family are deeply rendered, the rest of the characters remain relatively shallow. Addison adds layers of conflicting emotions to the role of Terry's cautiously supportive girlfriend, but as written, it's never entirely clear how full her understanding of Terry's condition is. There are similarly unanswered questions and discrepancies about the ATF agents (Jay Worthington, AnJi White, and Stephen Walker), their scheme, and the events of To Catch a Fish as they unfold. At times, the ambiguity seems deliberate. At others, Neveu's script is simply unclear.

Ron O.J. Parson's directing is crisp and distinct throughout. His staging uses every inch of Regina Garcia's sparse set, which is composed primarily of worn-down lawn furniture with suggestions of building exteriors. Christine Pascual's costumes inform the characters' backgrounds, from the simplicity of Rochelle and Dontre's work uniforms to Terry's hand-me-downs.

To Catch a Fish is a tender study of people trying to do what they can to understand and protect the people they love, with few tools to do so. It can be hard to watch, and occasionally hard to follow, but the fine performances make the viewing worthwhile.