The title of Sarah Gibbins’s Cocked refers to the act of engaging a gun, and indeed a gun is central to the plot line. Oddly enough, the titular gun is central to the most notable flaw in Gibbins’s otherwise engaging script.
The action revolves around Taylor (Kelli Simpkins, providing Chicago with another strong performance following her work in Timeline’s Spill), a high-octane corporate lawyer who begins the play with a knife in hand, ready to strike an intruder in her condo. The realization that the intruder is her brother Frank (Mike Tepeli) only slightly dissuades Taylor from using the knife.
The opening dialogue between Taylor and Frank showcases Gibbons’s writing at its best. It turns out Frank is an ex-con completely unable to maintain a job without stealing. Taylor has agreed to support Frank financially so long as he stays in Iowa caring for their aging mother. Taylor is firm and consistent—Frank must return to Iowa that night; he cannot stay with her and her partner Izzie (Patrese D. McClain) in Chicago. Yet, Frank keeps finding reasons to stay—he can paint Taylor’s bedroom; he can rewire her TV in the living room; he can deal with Taylors’s crazy, ex-Marine downstairs neighbor (the fourth character in Cocked though he is on stage for less than a second). His presence in Taylor’s house contextualizes a universal fear that telling someone to leave does not mean that the person will actually leave.
Tepeli’s performance highlights the complexity of Frank’s character, who genuinely believes that he can offer something of value for his sister. As the play progresses, Gibbins and set designer Chelsea M. Warren utilize an effective visual device to illustrate Frank’s destructiveness. Following each blackout, the lights return to reveal an increasingly trashed apartment as Frank makes “improvements” against Taylor’s explicit instructions (by the end, a broken TV lies dropped on the hardwood floor, wiring for a complex security system is strewn about, and the apartment’s only toilet has been relocated to the hallway closet). Each time, Frank is surprised when Taylor is angry rather than grateful.
Pressing conflicts focus on Izzie and her fear of their downstairs neighbor. Izzie is an investigative journalist that is personalizing by her coverage of violent crimes in Chicago. She insists that she and Taylor sell the condo due to the neighbor that allows his dog to bark at all hours, that plays Call of Duty at full volume, and that has a generally threatening manner that terrifies Izzie.
This is where the aforementioned gun comes into play. Frank sells Izzie a gun behind his sister’s back. The impact of guns in society is a worthy topic, but Gibbins fails to time her examinations appropriately. Consider the moment when Taylor finds out that Izzie has purchased the gun from Frank. Taylor is standing in her damaged apartment with her neighbor’s now-dead dog, killed by her crazy brother, hidden in her Gucci handbag. The clock is ticking until her military-trained downstairs neighbor arrives and retaliates. This suspenseful moment—characters held in an enclosed space as an imminent threat moves closer and closer—pulses straight out of a Victorian thriller. Is this the correct time to halt the action so Taylor can lecture Izzie about why they don’t believe in owning guns?
Sometimes playwrights begin writing with a topic that they want to explore, and then the challenge is allowing the plot to develop naturally. Cocked is an entertaining play made a little weaker when Gibbons asks her audiences to focus on characters compromising their morals when we are are more interested in worrying about their survival.