Review: Brain Surgeon’s “1512 West Studebaker Place”

 Promising, if Incomplete, “1512 Studebaker” brings the Depression Era Alive

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Brain Surgeon Theater presents:

1512 West Studebaker Place

conceived by Liz Ladach-Bark and Joseph Riley
directed by Liz Ladach-Bark
thru November 22nd (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

romance One thing you have to say about Brain Surgeon Theater’s latest production: they do crowded tenement right. In fact, 1512 West Studebaker Place maintains such a solid 1930’s tone, it’s hard to believe it’s a contemporary original production—the idea conceived by Liz Ladach-Bark and Joseph Riley, the play written and developed by the ensemble cast, with original music by Christopher Cole and Gwen Tulin. It has all the look and feel of a work that could have been produced from one of the New Deal’s arts programs. Even its incomplete finish does not diminish the ensemble’s achievement in the depiction of suffocating economic despair.

The production’s greatest strength is its realistic and cohesive integration of adult and child players. The Kelly family, headed by Stanley (Buck Zachary), wife Olivia (Katie Canavan) and sister Louise (Gwen Tulin), with their daughters Kate (Layla Kornota) and Suzy (Megan Bishop), live cheek-by-jowl with fellow borders Mim (Amy Gorelow), her niece Juliet (Laura Deger), writer Walter Lummet (Jacob A. Ware) and his little boy Mouse (Ethan Baum). Months of back rent are due to landlady Maggie Delaney, executed with absolutely sinister menace by Lauren I. Sivak.

Maggie Delaney walks in and out of their home without bothering to knock on the door. She involves Suzy in a secretive scheme. Bit by bit, she takes everything her tenants own—even callously wearing a hat that Louise has had to give up with the rest of her elaborate wardrobe.

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But the Kelly family may be just as much at the mercy of Stanley’s unrealistic hopes of owning a toy factory, as they are the economy. In fact, as naturalistic as family and tenant interactions are in this play, what strains credulity the most is Olivia’s enduring, patient acceptance of Stanley’s pipedreams and procrastination. The weakest moments of the play come at the end. When there is finally nothing left for Maggie Delaney to take, everyone gets thrown out of the house. Even a dutiful 30’s housewife would have something to say in response to the loss of her home and the imperiled state of her children, but Olivia remains silent in the face of Stanley’s insipid reassurances.

walter'sshadow The children’s games and songs in the play say volumes about living in poverty, often more than the play’s text itself. The plot developments, such as the revelation of a hidden safe in the house and a budding romance between the silently despairing Mim and butcher’s assistant Clarence, played warmly and compassionately by Rob Grabowski, deepen the world of the play and provide relief to this work’s unending hopelessness.

The plaintive figure of Mouse, jeopardizing his life by crawling out his attic room window to sit and sing in a tree, remains one of the play’s most enduring images. What gets lost in a muddle on stage, at the end of the play, is the dramatic significance of Mim opening up and speaking to him–a problem that could be resolved with some clean up in direction.

1512 West Studebaker Place is still incomplete and audiences should consider it very much a work in progress. But the Brain Surgeons have gotten it this far. The bones of a really good play are there. Let’s hope they will take it the all the way home.

Rating: ★★½

 

Read additional Studebaker Place review, by Henry H. Perritt, Jr., by clicking on “Read more”.

   

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Review: Thunder & Lightning’s “Home Front”

 Triteness Wars Against Tragedy in “Home Front”

Thunder & Lighting Ensemble presents:

Home Front

by James Duff
directed by Jimmy Binns
thru November 15th (ticket info)

Review by Paige Listerud

lightning_treeOne of the charming things about theater in Chicago is that, sometimes, notices of openings come from surprising places. We received news of Thunder & Lightning Ensemble’s production Home Front from somebody’s parents. We’re grateful for the alert. Rarely do we see a play about the cost of war to families in the form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, let alone a play that explored it long before it received recognition from our government or military. James Duff’s work seems American Primitive in its melodrama. But its power to reflect grinding family minutiae and its propensity to mask more devastating issues is scary in its accuracy.

All the more reason to handle Duff’s dialogue with care, especially since talking about the peanut brittle is sometimes not about the peanut brittle. It’s 1973. Jeremy (Mike Steele), the son of Bob (Marc Kelly Smith) and Maureen (Joan Merlo) and little brother to Karen (Kimberly Logan), is back from the war in Vietnam. As if holidays aren’t brutal enough–how will they get through Thanksgiving when Vietnam is the elephant in the room?

This production is worth seeing for Marc Smith ’s performance alone. His portrayal of this family’s baffled and embattled patriarch never hits a wrong note. We might even believe he lives here and refrain from sitting in his chair. Mike Steele’s Jeremy provides electricity in his increasingly dangerous outbursts. Joan Merlo’s suburban housewife Maureen shows genuine, folksy depth, from her needling attempts to nag her children back to church to her frustrated pleas to be respected beyond household servitude. Yet Merlo, no less than Logan, must beware of devolving into caricature. Logan’s performance in particular has to show more range beyond being a stereotypically peevish sibling or her role succumbs to two-dimensionality.

Kurt Bradenstein’s set design makes the most of EP Theater’s stage and is, in many ways, absolutely appropriate–its efficient use of cramped space emphasizes Home Front’s claustrophobic atmosphere. Here every bit of direction becomes magnified. Unfortunately, director Jimmy Binns informs the actors with only limited and utilitarian range of movement. The blocking is perfunctory and does little to enhance the dramatic value of each deceptively insignificant moment.

It’s too bad, because this capable cast could tease out more nuances from typically stock characters. Maureen may be the dutiful wife and mother, but she also has a stinger in her tale that could be whipped out with more flourish before it disappears beneath her housewifely frumpiness. Karen’s whiny demeanor should not conceal the love she feels for her brother, frustrated all the more when he denies her attempts to re-establish lost camaraderie.

Family life is a tangled web, woven by years of self-deception and the acceptance of consensus fictions that hold the family together. No need to blame it all on Nam, man. With Jeremy, Karen, and Maureen all threatening to leave, Vietnam may only be the final lie that rips it all wide open. Now all this production needs to do is delineate that web for the audience in all its hideous glory.

Rating: ★★