Extraterrestrial Talent: Comm junior Michael Finley gives out-of-this-world ‘Aliens’ performance

James Bien, Writer

Every weekend, while other students are hitting The Keg, catching a movie or studying in the stacks, Communication junior Michael Finley is delivering heartfelt performances at the Chicago premiere shows of Annie Baker’s highly acclaimed play, “The Aliens.” Finley plays the lead role in this production, which has already received positive reviews from local publications such as The Chicago Tribune and Time Out Chicago since its first show Jan. 17.

The play, set in the backyard of a coffee shop in Vermont, centers on three main characters: Jasper, an aspiring novelist, KJ, a college dropout with a history of psychological problems and (Finley’s character) Evan, a timid 17-year-old barista. His character, who initially tries to shoo the two 30-year-old slackers (played by Steve Haggard and Brad Akin) from his workplace, instead finds meaning and growth in his developing friendship with them. Through this relationship, he ponders crucial decisions about life paths that would stir confusion and insecurity in the mind of any high school senior. Although not much action takes place on stage, each line and movement is subtle and nuanced. The stage decor is simple, with only a picnic table in the center and a trash can on the right side of the stage.

Finley found out about the role through his acting professor Cindy Gold. Director Shade Murray (Communication ‘96, ‘08), who keeps professional contact with Northwestern’s faculty, approached Gold in search of a suitable actor. Gold was right on the money when she submitted Finley’s information to him; critics have described his performance as “pitch-perfect.” Finley, upon reading the script, was highly enthusiastic about the role.

“I loved the script,” he said. “After reading it, I was really hopeful. I would have done whatever I could do to get seen for this, whatever I could do to get an audition.”

It is somewhat uncommon for professional theaters to hire such a young actor, especially one who hasn’t completed acting training. Moreover, casting Finley was a rare case because playing Evan’s role demands a great amount of control in the scenes.

“Actors at such a young age have a lot to figure out,” said Akin, who plays KJ. “More often than not, the director goes for the older actor because there’s confidence in knowing that you’ve got someone who’s done this for a while.”

However, when Akin (Communication ’08) and Murray met Finley at the audition, they were immediately blown away.

“He had a really, really great audition,” Akin said. “The director decided that this is the direction we needed to go.”

In fact, Finley’s tender age may have served as an advantage. At the audition, his baby face caught the director’s attention because Finley’s youthfulness underscored one of the most important dynamics of the play, according to Murray: the contrast between “a 17-year-old hanging out with two 30-year-olds.”

Furthermore, Finley empathizes a great deal with Evan. When Murray talked to him about the character, he automatically understood Evan’s thoughts and said, “Believe me, I know what that’s like.” Finley said he felt especially attached to his character because they share a past of being bullied.

“I wasn’t like all the other guys doing sports,” Finley explained. “You can feel alienated.”

His connection with the character is noticeable. Akin said Finley’s subtle awkwardness, which is “just below the surface,” is one of the things he loved about his portrayal of Evan’s character.

This is hardly Finley’s first time on stage. As a high school student, he performed in productions at the Metropolis Performing Arts Center in Arlington Heights, Ill. Last year, he participated in the Theater and Interpretation Center show “You Can’t Take It With You.”

Initially, Murray was apprehensive about how Finley would adapt to “a small storefront theater space,” because most of his experience comes from large school auditoriums. Finley dispelled these worries in rehearsals and during shows by giving “natural, conversational and effortless” performances, according to Murray. In fact, all of Murray’s concerns about featuring a student actor eventually disappeared. As soon as rehearsals began, Finley proved to the cast and crew they had made the correct decision.

“It was never a question of explaining what he needed to be doing,” Murray said. “A lot of young actors find it hard to balance instinct and technique, but Michael never had a problem with that.”

Although “The Aliens” is a fairly new (2010) play, it was a highly anticipated one, with many theater companies bidding for performance rights. To feature a trending play that so many rave about was a nervous endeavor for the cast and crew. However, Finley said he was proud of his performance, as well as the work of his fellow actors and crew. While he was thrilled with the good reviews, he noted the cast and crew maintained the consistently superb quality of the production.

“We weren’t going to change the show whether we have good or bad reviews,” he said.

Finley said he is most excited to see what the audience takes away from the play. As the story of three men trying to find their way in life is relatable to many, he said he hopes the audience learns the importance of human connections, mourning and friendship.

“The Aliens” will run 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday until March 3 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.