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”.

   

   

1512 West Studebaker Place

Second review by Henry H. Perritt, Jr.

1512 W. Studebaker Place is in its second week of performances at Prop Thtr space, at 3502 N Elston Ave. Written and developed by the Ensemble at Brain Surgeon Theater, directed by Liz Ladach-Bark, with original music by Christopher Cole and Gwen Tulin, 1512 W. Studebaker Place portrays the plight of four families, some of them truncated, crowded together in a tenement during the Depression.

Threatened daily with eviction by their smarmy landlady, and trying to put a bright face on things for their children, they handle their desperation differently. Stanley Kelly, brightly performed by Buck Zachery, sees happiness inside every cloud. Pessimistic about finding a regular job, he is full of stories about the disappointments his friends have suffered standing in job lines. For him, rescue for his family will come when he can find a backer for the line of children’s toys he tinkers with constantly, or maybe if he can succeed in breaking open a wall safe belonging to a former tenant. He deflects the escalating, but worn anxiety his wife Olivia, portrayed by Katie Canavan, nags him with occasionally, culminating on the edge of hysteria when she tells him she is having another baby.

Mim (Amy Gorelow) has retreated from the death of her husband into silence, punctuated occasionally as she makes her music on an upright bass. Mim is courted by Clarence, who keeps the families from starving by his daily deliveries of meat, which he claims are left over from the restaurant and bar he runs. Rob Grabowski captures perfectly the torment of a man with low self-esteem trying to buy affection with gifts, and then barely marshaling the courage to speak of what he wants, certain of rejection. Clarence admits to Mim, “I am not the best looking guy, nor the smartest; but I am a good man.” Mim holds him off, afraid to let anyone break through her shell.

Juliet, played by Laura Deger, is a lost soul, who confides in one of the children that she had a baby herself once, fathered by a lover who found someone else he liked better. Juliet gave up her baby to a “family who could love her and take care of her,” and spends her time as a bystander to the conflicts swirling through the household, playing the flute and sketching.

Meanwhile Walter Lummet (Jacob A. Ware), retreats from reality by writing and shunning his young son, played appealingly by 8-year old Ethan Baum. Writing is a “real job,” Lummet says, disdainfully lashing out at Stanley for not being more aggressive in looking for a job, and belittling his foolish occupation with toy design. Ultimately, Lummet can’t stand the noise of the children running through the house, the piano playing by Olivia’s sister, and Stanley’s hammering as he tries to break open the safe.

Olivia’s sister, Louise, has come to live with them until her boyfriend sends for her ot meet him in New Mexico. Gwen Tulin, as Louise, makes it clear that the summons from the boyfriend is far more active in Louise’s mind than in the mail. She cannot be bothered to help with the chores but is certain she knows how to improve everyone else.

The set is stunning, effectively representing five or six rooms of a crowded tenement on a very small stage. The period costumes work well. The music makes not only the cast, but also the audience, want to dance, and its themes and lyrics evoke the efforts of the hopeless nevertheless trying to have a few moments of fun and to cling to their dreams. Sound design was good, causing it not to matter much whether the music was coming from the piano, bass or flute on stage, or through recording played through the theater’s speakers.

The production is not flawless. The first act borders on pedestrian, but it effectively sets things up for a moving and powerful second act. Some of the characters need a bit more development. For example, it is not entirely clear who Juliet is, or how she is related to the Kelly family with whom she lives. The connection between her flute playing and sketching and her past disappointments is clear, but she could use a stronger goal—is it only to enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that her child is being raised by a loving, but unknown, family somewhere? Can that sustain her for the rest of her life?

Walter periodically has a dialogue with someone unseen while he is struggling with his writing. Who is this? Is it external dialogue over the telephone (probably not; the tenants could not afford a telephone) or is it internal dialogue? The content of his lines is evocative, but uncertainty about their nature is distracting.

Anyone who believes that the “rules” of theater require resolution of every major conflict will not like this play—nothing is resolved. They presumably do not like Chekhov or Albee either. But the lack of resolution is 1512 W. Studebaker Place’s strength: it makes you care about the very different obstacles that block achievement each character’s goals and wonder, “how on earth can they rise about this.” It makes you want to talk about what the characters confront, what options are available to them, whether they have the character and coping mechanisms to move forward, and what their criteria for happiness will be. This is good drama. It is well worth seeing.

The straitjackets with which the Depression confined humanity in the 1930s is not all that different from those of today’s financial crisis or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Exit strategies are elusive. Brain Surgeon Theatre’s 1512 W. Studebaker Place confronts us with that elusiveness, while bringing us forward in our seats, anticipating—and hoping for—the possibility that the human spirit will nevertheless find a means of escape.

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