A Twist of Water is a family drama with twists, but not the kind you think. Plot twists, though there are a couple, are not nearly as important as the bending and twisting of conventional social roles — identity bending, if you will. The broadest theme of the play is identity — how it is created, how it empowers, and how it limits and disempowers. Identity, layered like lacquer on a fine musical instrument, is bent and shaped by the playwright Caitlin Montanye Parrish and her creative partner and the play’s director Erica Weiss to give the story an affecting cultural resonance. But the appeal of this production lies not so much in its burnished finish, as its timeliness, which is, perhaps, a simple twist of fate.

The tectonic substratum of identity in A Twist of Water is the city of Chicago. The lights come up on a monologue by Noah (Stef Tovar), a white history teacher in a Chicago high school. He tells us that he wants to teach students about the identity of the city. In his telling, Chicago was founded by a singular act of courage; the Great Fire was a test of the city’s mettle; and now the city is something different, something less warm and optimistic than it once was, but more realistic, pragmatic, and effective. As the play progresses it becomes clear that Noah’s history of Chicago closely parallels his own history.

Noah’s sexuality provides another layer of identity. He is a gay man, nearly forty years old, who recently lost his life partner (the only man with whom he had a relationship) in a car crash. Still grieving for his loss, Noah has been exploring a flirtation with Liam (Alex Hugh Brown) who is thirteen years his junior. Noah’s gayness is not merely an accident or afterthought: the fact that he is not heterosexual is key to the plot. But his gayness is written against the grain of representations of gay men in contemporary popular culture. Noah is not an aesthete, a hedonist, or a narcissist. He doesn’t perform any of the gestures that mainstream culture associates with gay men. He is however, the father of a seventeen year-old, black girl named Jira.

Jira (Falashay Pearson) is adopted, intelligent, and angry over the loss of her other father. Her identity has more complications than filo in a baklava, but Parrish and Weiss take advantage of forty years of young adult fiction, after school specials, and framing the margins to let these complications do their resonating implicitly. She says she wants to find her birth mother to fill the void left by her other father’s death and perhaps to discover whether or not she is genetically predisposed to diabetes. But her seemingly innocuous Oedipal rationale obscures (on purpose I think) the larger tensions between her and her adopted father — a tension thinly alluded to by Noah as part of Chicago’s complicated history of race relations.

Herein lies the importance of the twist. A woman cast in Noah’s part could read the lines with only a few modifications in the script, and no damage would be done to the story. The emotions generated in the audience wouldn’t be substantively different. And the same is true for Noah and Jira’s racial difference. Their relationship is pure melodrama, which certainly has precedent in gay male culture; however, gayness, blackness, and, most importantly, gender difference, isn’t necessary for the struggle between Noah and Jira. Consequently, there is something about Noah’s gayness that seems lacking. Maybe it’s the implication that the drama of identity is merely and fundamentally a legal problem, in which identity is not forged by existential struggle but by the prerogative of the state. If so, that species of bland, normalizing, liberal utopianism would be cried down by authentic identity warriors, for whom the revolutionary struggle to overthrow colonializing patriarchy is a beautiful, existential quest.

Is A Twist of Water ultimately a family drama (and not a political drama)? Paradoxically, the most touching moment of the play comes when Jira discovers that her legally constructed identity as Noah’s daughter means more to her than her “birth” identity. This climactic moment complicates the assumptions about authenticity and identity that constitute A Twist of Water’s carefully crafted veneer. But you might miss its importance if you only focus on the fact that Illinois passed its civil unions law in 2011.

In the last analysis, however, audiences want drama, and A Twist of Water delivers it. Whether you think this play has an essential identity or not, the pieces fit together so well that it probably doesn’t matter. Noah’s history of Chicago as the crucible of identity — and the politics of identity — is just one layer, the one closest to the surface, of this many-layered play.

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