Steep Theatre’s Our Dear Dead Drug Lord is Terrifying and Thrilling, in Spite of an Imperfect Script

Associate Arts Editor Zachary Leiter reviews Steep Theatre’s production of “Our Dead Dead Drug Lord.”


Jeremy Hall

[Left to right] Isabel Rivera, Lauren Smith, Isabella Maria Valdes, and Elena Victoria Feliz.

By Zachary Leiter, Associate Arts Editor

Content Warning: drug use, graphic descriptions of violence and abortion

In a make-believe tree house in a real-life-used-to-be-church on the North Side of Chicago, Steep Theatre’s production of Alexis Scheer’s Our Dear Dead Drug Lord is not for the faint of heart. The play, which premiered in 2021 to much acclaim, depicts four teenage girls in Miami in their quest—indeed, quite a saga—to summon the ghost of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Whether or not this feat is accomplished by the play’s end is up for debate, in part because the girls are on cocaine for much of the duration. Friends Pipe, Squeeze, Zoom, and Kit struggle much more with each other and their adolescence than with the otherworldly, even as they try to convince themselves otherwise. Make no mistake, however: This play is not a conventional coming of age narrative.

Our Dear Dead Drug Lord is, in two words, a spectacle. Anarchic drawings adorn the walls of the small black box Steep Theatre, whose motto is appropriately “Incredible Stories, Incredibly Close.” But to call this a black box would be to suggest an absence of frills, where in reality, the room is decked out floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall in reminiscences of an early-aughts adolescence. It’s more like theater in-the-round, but with a rather small circumference. Drug Lord makes strong use of its space: Characters dash around, banging into things and assaulting the audience with their performed physicality.

Lights rise and fall and flash. The young girls scream at one another, and their shrieks echo. This is a loud and frantic play, and it’s a play in which everything seems to happen all at once (but that, this reviewer supposes, is how he felt in high school). Drug Lord’s biggest fault is that these characters depict normal adolescence only to a certain degree; they have way more than their fair, or reasonable, share of struggles. The characters have so many dead relatives and depressive bouts that their traumas begin to lose their shock value—and their true value to the audience. And that’s a shame, because the four girls’ actors, despite being adults, present very believable angsty teenagers.

Lauren Smith, as Zoom, is particularly fantastic. Smith’s eager energy pervades the play, providing a robust counterpart to Isabella Maria Valdes’s strong-willed and certain-minded Pipe, who leads the four girls. Zoom is a whirling dervish of sorts, spinning around the stage somewhat unawares. She fidgets with her clothing constantly, climbs everything, and spies on her friends’ conversations. Zoom is living in a world entirely of her own imagination, where she believes her friend Kit to be Pablo Escobar’s long-lost daughter.

And Zoom still believes in the power of magic. It is therefore particularly heartbreaking to watch her sudden disillusionment upon witnessing the cruel reality of Pipe’s ambitions. All four of these girls just want to feel self-assured and stable, and Smith demonstrates that adolescent desire with incredible genuineness.

However, the play’s end is differently heartbreaking: Just as quickly as Zoom realizes her naivete, the play pivots, becoming a hasty, strange sort of quasi-feminist, pseudo-anarchist tirade. And in that ending, the characters’ traumas and faults are stripped away. The result is a less interesting product.

Where Drug Lord succeeds is in its graphic depiction of the blurred line between dangerous insanity and childhood. Growing up is tough, and Pipe, Squeeze, Zoom, and Kit are just trying to assert control over the world around them. Where Drug Lord fails is where it attempts, especially at play’s end, to be a manifesto.

These are, however, faults of the script, and Steep Theatre’s production is otherwise near flawless. It is especially thrilling, and chilling, in its startlingly frank exploration of adolescents’ experiences with issues of race, sexuality, and religion. Drug Lord is nothing if not startling. There’s a particularly difficult-to-watch scene at the play’s end—the scene in which Zoom is disillusioned—where her friends perform a forced coat hanger abortion on a pinned-down Zoom in a sacrifice to summon Escobar.

This play is, again, not for the faint of heart, nor for those desiring coolly manicured, digestible theater.

But re-creating adolescence is a hard task, as is summoning a drug lord. And if it’s unclear whether the four friends are successful in summoning said Drug Lord, there’s much less doubt that Steep Theatre has been successful in conjuring up a fabulous and frightening spectacle.

Steep Theatre’s production of Alexis Scheer’s “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” ran at Edgewater through December 10. Show content warning: drug use, animal cruelty, graphic violence.