Review: Heartbreak House (Writers’ Theatre)

        
        

Writers’ Theatre unpacks Shaw’s layered comedy-drama

        
        

A scene from George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House", now playing at Writers Theatre.

   
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Heartbreak House
   
Written by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by William Brown
at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $65  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Staging George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 satire with the expectation that it will carry relevance requires overcoming some steep hurdles. Without an encyclopedic understanding of period social structure, the play can lack gravity. It’s an uneven mix of broad hysterics and droll musings. It’s literary. It’s long.

Martin Yurek and Tiffany Scott in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".Director William Brown clears or at least side-steps those obstacles through his focus on character accessibility and audience immersion, narrowing the gap between what resonates on the page and what functions in presentation. Great care is taken to ease the entrance to the world of the play–literally, at first. Keith Pitts’ scenic and Jesse Klug’s lighting design sprawls from the performance space to the house, stretching the Shotover manor garden as far they can cultivate it. It’s a hypnotic oasis featuring little touches like a delightfully audible pebble walkway, ethereal floating lanterns, and the general comforts of a privileged family. Think a 20th Century Midsummer garden.

But unlike the tightly-wound lovers who dwell in Shakespeare’s forest, Shaw’s well-to-do find no contentment under each others’ spell–only unrequited desires and disillusion. When young Ellie Dunn (Atra Asdou, romanticism embodied, well-cast as the wide-eyed guide) accepts an invitation to her friend’s (Karen Janes Woditsch) home, she discovers and is ultimately overcome by a web of self-consumed entitlements and entangled loves. If there’s any enchantment to be found, it’s in the thought of total liberation from the mythical heartbreak house and its emotionally-deteriorating inhabitants. Here, sleep is just paralysis.

     
Kevin Christopher Fox and Martin Yurek in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw". John Lister, Kareem Bandealy and Karen Janes Woditsch in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

Writers’ production speaks to what can be unearthed amidst the anguish of love gone awry and the catharsis of reckless abandon. As social commentary, not even a slight update–pushing the story up to WWII–makes the class predicaments entirely identifiable. Well-acted as the performances may be (John Reeger, Janes Woditsch and Tiffany Scott leading the strong ensemble), tedium undercuts several stretches within early scenes. Sex, too, is lacking. Improper seduction perpetuates some of the comedy, and jealousy and wanting perpetuate most of the story–both are dependent on clear sensuality. This Heartbreak could benefit from more. It’s a slow simmer, but by Act III, those shortcomings are easy to forget. Shaw’s skepticism on marriage and relationships progress from era-dependency to something more universal with each act. For all its long-windedness, Heartbreak’s takeaway is the final wordless tableau: a group unified by disappointment, knowing to move on, and looking to the sky for its own destruction.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Karen Janes Woditsch, Martin Yurek and John Reeger in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets for all shows are $65, and can be purchased through Writers’ website. Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, which includes two intermissions. 

     
     

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Review: Do the Hustle (Writers’ Theatre)

     
     

Creating despicable characters we could care less about

     
     

Patrick Andrews and Francis Guinan in Brett Neveu's  'Do the Hustle' at Writers' Theatre

  
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Do the Hustle
  
Written by Brett Neveu
Directed by William Brown 
at
Writers’ Theatre, Glencoe (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

A father and son scuffle over a cup of hot chocolate. The boy walks out in a rage. The cashier bonds with the dad over tough parenting. In response, the father pulls a fast one and steals $10. Writers’ Theatre presents the world premiere of Do The Hustle. Eddie is teaching Sam the family business. The mark, the build-up, the take, father teaches his son the important elements of the perfect con. The duo executes a progression of swindles to get to the big pay off. The scamming hits close to home when the rip-offs get personal. Who is zooming who? Do The Hustle is a series of dark, biting stings that swell into a big ouch.

Patrick Andrews, Karen Janes Woditsch and Francis Guinan - Brett Neveu's 'Do the Hustle' at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.Playwright Brett Neveu penned a chain of seedy intrigues. Playing the audience, the con within the con within the con surprises and baffles. How did they do that? The repeated dialogue is authentically redundant and natural family-speak. The dysfunctional relationship between father and son is well-established. The missing nut in this shell game is the connection. Neveu has created truly flawed characters. They are distinct and despicable. But Neveu comes up short on the big score by cheating the audience of a person to care about. It is no “catch me if you can’ – “the dirty rotten scoundrels” run “the sting” under a “paper moon.” The con artist can be an endearing good bad guy! The double-dealing father, the scheming son, the bitchy grandma, the addict mom: whether they are the confidence men, shills or victims, no one bamboozles empathy.

Under the direction of William Brown, the long con is paced dynamically. Set-ups transition into the next with movable doors (scenic designer Kevin Depinet) that illustrate the location. Andrew Hansen (sound designer) aids in the placement with doors opening to street noises. With minimal furnishings and props, the door generated sounds set the scene. The focal point is the action. And Brown directs it to loathsome heights. Francis Guinan (Eddie) is perfect as a fast-talking louse. Patrick Andrews (Sam) acts out cons of cons with masterful earnest but malicious intent. Joe Minoso and Karen Janes Woditsch excel in multiple roles. Minoso goes from invalid to pawn to rifleman with extensive versatility. Woditsch plays shrew from every angle. The cast is wonderful! I just don’t like any of them. In the end, Do The Hustle had a great beat but I couldn’t dance to it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Patrick Andrews, Francis Guinan, Joe Miñoso and Karen Janes Woditsch - 'Do the Hustle' by Brett Neveu at Writers' Theatre.

Do the Hustle continues Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 2pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 6pm, with performances occurring at Writer’s Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe.  For more info, visit www.writerstheatre.org.

Running Time: One hundred and five minutes with no intermission

  
  

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Top 25 Chicago Plays of 2010

Abagail's Party - A Red Orchid Theatre Ian Westerfer as Baal at TUTA Theatre '1001' - Collaboraction Andrew Carter and Terry Hamilton - Frost-Nixon at Timeline Theatre Killer Joe - Profiles Theatre Awake and Sing at Porchlight - Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold
Ragtime - Drury Lane Oakbrook Anton Chekhov's 'The Seagull' - Goodman Theatre streetcar named desire - tennessee williams - writers theatre To Master The Art - Timeline Theatre Chicago Brother-Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre - Tarell Alvin McCraney Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Virginia Woolf - Steppenwolf Theatre
About Face Theatre presents 'Float' hot mikado - andy lupp, todd kryger, stephen schellhardt - Drury Lane Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union Hey Dancin - Factory Theater Liz Hoffman in Last Night of Ballyhoo The Illusion - Kushner - Court Theatre
My Brother's Keeper - Black Ensemble Theatre "Memory" by the Backstage Theatre Company Mimesophobia - Theatre Seven - by Carlos Murillo "Oleanna" by David Mamet - American Theater Company The Water Engine: An American Fable - by David Mamet.  Picture: Charles Lang and George Zerante from Theatre Seven Geoff Packard as Candide in Goodman Theatre's 'Candide', music by Leonard Bernstein, directed by Mary Zimmerman
"Scorched" by Wajdi Mouawad - Silk Road Theatre Project "Side Man" by Lauren Rawitz at Metroplis Performing Arts Centre "The Tallest Man" at Artistic Home Haff, the Man - Falling Girl - Zarko Theatre - photo by Laura Montenegro Tad in the 5th City - MPAACT Chicago Sarah Rose Graber in 'Book of Liz' - Chemically Imbalanced Comedy

 

Top 25 Chicago Productions of 2010

(in alphabetical order)

All told, Chicago Theater Blog covered an astounding 508 shows in 2010—proving without a doubt that this town is truly a non-stop theater machine! Whittling 500 shows down to the year’s top 25 productions was not an easy task, but we think this list illuminates what makes Chicago such a dynamic place to perform and create – a mix of works produced by small storefront companies all the way up to large Equity houses.

So, without further ado, here – listed alphabetically – are the top 25 productions of 2010:

 

   
Collaboraction 1001 - Chicago Theater Blog
1001


Collaboraction (Sept 2010)
Written by Jason Grote
Directed by Seth Bockley
our review 

“The Arabian Nights” are replayed in a near-futuristic setting, taking place in the belly of New York City’s underground tunnels after a nuclear blast. Says reviewer Oliver Sava, “Grote masterfully intertwines the various story threads, bleeding slapstick comedy, relationship drama, political criticism, and post-modern philosophy together to create a play that defies categorization.”. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune called the play “savvy, self-aware and adroit at noting the power of myth in generations of sectarian strife . . .” and Monica Westin of New City noted, “It’s almost impossible to overstate the wit, fluidity and complexity . . .” of the production. (our review)

 

   
Abagail's Party - A Red Orchid Theatre
Abagail’s Party

A Red Orchid Theatre  (Feb 2010)
Written by
Mike Leigh
Directed by Shade Murray
our review

A Red Orchid Theatre brought out some of their best ensemble work for Mike Leigh’s class-conscious play about stifled lives in 1970s English suburbia. Director Shade Murray lovingly crafted middle class malaise out of Leigh’s caustic script, while Kirsten Fitzgerald lit the torch as Beverly–leading the tight and superb cast in a reckless, discontented charge to mutual destruction. As Susan, Natalie West “essentially reprises her role of Crystal from Roseanne but with a British accent . . . she becomes the play’s most relatable character. Watching in horror as suburban drama unfolds before her eyes, she is an audience member on the other side of the curtain: sober, shocked, and completely in awe.” (our review)

 

   
Awake and Sing at Porchlight - Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold
Awake and Sing

Northlight Theatre  (Feb 2010)
By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
our review

On Broadway, the original, 1935 production of Awake and Sing ran for 120 performances and fixed Clifford Odets‘ reputation as a playwright to reckon with. Chicago audiences were not so impressed. "They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit," recalled Group Theatre actress Phoebe Brand.  From today’s viewpoint, it’s hard to see why, especially considering Northlight Theatre‘s powerful revival of this blackly humorous hard-times drama. The play stands on the side of the working class, documenting the warring of capitalism vs. socialism, plodding resignation vs. revolutionary fervor, and long-range hope vs. live-for-today fatalism among them.  As director, Steppenwolf’s Amy Morton adeptly paced the show, no doubt helped with a top-knotch cast, including seasoned performers Cindy Gold, Peter Kevoian, Mike Nussbaum and Jay Whittaker.    (our review)

 

   
Ian Westerfer as Baal at TUTA Theatre
Baal


TUTA Theatre (May 2010)
Written by
Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Zeljko Djukic
our review

TUTA Theatre will remount its very successful production of Brecht’s The Wedding this February. However, their stronger tour de force was the young Brecht’s very first play, Baal, which explored the rise and fall of the ultimate rebel artist. Assisted by a brilliantly clean and powerful translation by Peter Tegel, director Zeljko Djukic and cast executed a searing interrogation of the subversive artist as pop idol, while at the same time delivering to audiences a wildly intuitive and anarchic performance by Ian Westerfer in the title role. An exactingly cohesive ensemble cast matched Westerfer moment-to-moment, composing the perfect Petri dish for pre-Nazi cynicism, cruelty and decadence. Josh Schmidt’s original music contemporized and rounded out the mood and atmosphere for the piece. (See our review here.) Tom Williams of Chicago Critic called the production “refreshingly inventive as it swiftly blends drama with raw sensuality . . . demonstrates what the power of dedicated artists can produce once they are in creative sync.” Albert Williams of the Reader called Baal “a vivid, dreamlike work of stage poetry.”  (our review)

   
Sarah Rose Graber in Book of Liz - Chemically Imbalanced Comedy Chicago

 

The Book of Liz

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy (Sept 2010)
Written by
Amy and David Sedaris
Directed by Angie McMahon
our review

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy had a huge success with The Book of Liz, so much so that it was extended numerous times, and is still running well into 2011. The show, written by Amy and David Sedaris, concerns a small community of Quaker-like Christians known as “The Squeamish”. The Squeamish are simple folk who do without modern-day amenities and instead spend their time praising God and making cheeseballs. Liz is the under-appreciated genius behind the cheeseballs, which serve as the community’s financial backbone. In this hilarious production, Angie McMahon’s direction is resourceful when using the tight space, managing to swiftly transform the stage from a parish to a restaurant to a doctor’s office without letting the momentum of the play slow for a moment. The Book of Liz stayed true to the Sedaris spirit, and fortunately did not hamper the actors from taking risks and breathing new life into the play’s characters. (our review)

   
Brother-Sister Plays at Steppenwolf Theatre - Tarell Alvin McCraney
Brother/Sister Plays
 

Steppenwolf Theatre (Feb 2010)
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney
directed by Tina Landau
our review  |  photo album

McCraney’s much-anticipated Chicago debut at Steppenwolf did not disappoint. Indeed, concisely paired with Tina Landau’s sparse and enigmatic Viewpoints direction, the triptych of In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet formed a breathtaking mythic and generational through-line that consistently transcended time and space. To be a young playwright mentioned along with August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Tony Kushner must be quite a heady experience. But Steppenwolf’s production—teaming with sterling performances by Jaqueline Williams, K. Todd Freeman, Philip James Brannon and Glenn Davis—shows that sometimes you can absolutely believe the hype. Barry Eitel’s review (see here) affirms Chicago’s critical consensus that “McCraney will no doubt become an important dramatic voice for our generation.”  (our review)

   
Candide - Goodman Theatre - Hollis Resnick and Lauren Molina
Candide

Goodman Theatre (Sept 2010)
Adapted from
Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler 
Music by Leonard Bernstein, et.al.
Directed by
Mary Zimmerman
our review 

Mary Zimmerman is the mastermind behind The Goodman Theatre’s new musical production of Candide. The Tony-award winner not only directed the epic, whose plot literally spans years and oceans, but she also adapted the script. Normally, I’m not a fan of one person having such a heavy hand in the development of a drama. Having a  separate writer and director has major benefits, namely the benefit of distance from the work. And it is this distance that can fix any glaring errors in the script or add directorial nuances to strengthen the production. “Thanks to director Zimmerman’s affinity for levity,” said our own Keith Ecker, “Zimmerman saves Voltaire’s classic philosophical narrative from becoming crushed under the weight of its own ideology. I’m amazed that such a sprawling script and dense story can be so digestible. (our review)

 

   
float-about-face-theatre
FLOAT 

About Face Theatre (Nov 2010)
Written by Patricia Kane
Directed by
Leslie Buxbum Danzig 
our review 

About Face Theatre overcame the pitfalls of preciousness that come when presenting a Christmas story about five women with Minnesota-nice written all over them. Members of a Midwest women’s society, they gather in a barn to create the annual Christmas float. What could have devolved into Hallmark card caricature actually resulted in honest emotional plumbing of their lives, conflicts and pressures. Director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig kept the pace brisk while the cast molded complex and full-figured characters out of Patricia Kane’s witty script. FLOAT became the new fresh face in a holiday theater season stuffed to the gills with the same old fruitcake. (our review)

 

 
Andrew Carter and Terry Hamilton - Frost-Nixon at Timeline Theatre
Frost/Nixon
 

Timeline Theatre (Aug 2010)
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Louis Contey
our review

A reclusive, disgraced ex-president squares off against a glib playboy talk show host in a televised battle for public approval. TimeLine’ Theatre’s production of Frost/Nixon inventively captured America right on the cusp–before reality TV but shortly after the boob tube emerged as the gladiatorial arena in which public figures are tried and tested. Terry Hamilton’s portrayal of the fallen Nixon impressed everyone with its grounded, humanistic veracity. Andrew Carter’s Frost signaled a smooth operator, fitting the jet-set mold of the period, yet heralding vacuous times ahead for civic discourse. Scenic designer Keith Pitts collaborated with projectionist Mike Tutaj to manifest the perfect facile realm for Louis Contey’s subtle and tense direction. (our review)

 

   
Haff, The Man - Falling Girl - Theatre Zarko - Michael Montenegro.
Haff, the Man/Falling Girl 

Theatre Zarko (Oct 2010)
Written by
Michael Montenegro
Directed by
Montenegro and Ellen O’Keefe
our review 

Master puppeteer Michael Montenegro and long-time creative partner Ellen O’Keefe created and directed two deeply evocative stories; one about a man trying to restore himself in order to begin a new life with a new love, another about a young girl dangerously desperate for the promising adventure that could be her life. An extremely dedicated and integrated troupe of puppeteers and performers executed Montenegro’s dreamlike dramatic creations, manifesting a fully realized, vivid revival of the Symbolist Theatre tradition. Sublime musical atmosphere directed by Jude Mathews backed up their efforts. The result was pure, unadulterated poetry for the child within the adult theatergoer. (our review)

 

   
Hey Dancin - Factory Theater
Hey! Dancin’! 

Factory Theater (March 2010)
by
Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer
directed by
Sarah Rose Graber
our review 

Hey! Dancin’! isn’t just a hair-brained ‘80s-inspired comedy. It’s also an effective satire on people’s perceptions of celebrity today. K.K. and his girlfriend Tanya see themselves as the center of the universe because they are on TV.—cable access—but TV nonetheless. Halle (Melissa Nedell) and Trisha (Catherine Dughi) give this notion weight since they are star-obsessed with these no-name nudniks. Yet as Halle gets to know the real K.K. (Jacob A. Ware), who admittedly dreams of being famous without actually ever wanting to hone any real talent, the image of these backwoods celebrities begins to crumble.  Says our own Keith Ecker: “The acting is brilliant. The comedic timing of most of the players is impeccable. I’ve seen countless improv, sketch and stand-up shows, and this rivals the best of them. Simon as the recovering alcoholic station manager is a scene-stealer with his Muppet-like voice and general awkwardness.”  (our review)

 

   
hot mikado - andy lupp, todd kryger, stephen schellhardt - Drury Lane
Hot Mikado 

Drury Lane Oakbrook (Aug 2010)
Written by Gilbert and Sullivan
Directed by David Bell
our review 

Drury Lane Theatre tore it up with this jazz-age revival version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic. Lawrence Bommer raved that its music director Michael Mahler had a “period-perfect Midas touch” and that the production “sizzles with (director) David Bell’s Lindy-hopping, be-bopping, high-step dances . . . the all-dancing cast turn the Mikado’s entrance into a tap-dancing tour-de-force . . .”  Aurelia Williams brought the power as Katisha, while Stephen Schellhardt worked his comic chops, recalling Groucho Marx, Stephen Colbert, Keaton and Chaplin. All in all, Drury Lane’s production was a unmistakably riotous success heard all around the Chicagoland area.  (our review)

 

   
The Illusion - Kushner - Court Theatre
The Illusion 

Court Theatre  (March 2010)
Written by
Pierre Corneille
Adapted by Tony Kushner 
Directed by
Charles Newell 
our review  |  photo album

But for a few dramatic speed bumps between the romantic leads, Court Theatre pulled off a dense, ornately rich and multilayered dream world with Tony Kushner’s story-within-several-stories adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 400 year-old play. Charles Newell’s direction led the dance between reality and fantasy, while Collette Pollard’s set design established an delightfully uncanny magical realm. Chris Sullivan amazed as the magician, Alcandre, and Timothy Edward Kane roiled the audience with his comic portrayal of Matamore, the cowardly warrior. Barry Eitel declared the production an “uncommon delight” and a “triumph,” a love letter to the theater. (our review)

     
Killer Joe - Profiles Theatre
Killer Joe 

Profiles Theatre (Jan 2010)
Written by
Tracy Letts
directed by Rick Snyder
our review

Profiles Theatre pushed the envelope with Tracy Lett’s early play and gave audiences a sly, close, depraved and dangerous ride. Rick Snyder’s direction never stinted on its desolate Texas trailer-trash realism or let up on the work’s unrelenting dark humor and looming tension. Darrel Cox gave a killer performance as Killer Joe Cooper, hired by Chris (Kevin Bigley) to kill his birth mother for insurance money in order to pay off his debt to a drug dealer. Keith Ecker notes Cox’s facility to go “from southern gent to cold-blooded killer . . . all that much more shocking when Joe tosses aside his southern hospitality to reveal the psychopath that lies beneath.” Catey Sullivan observed that Profiles’ production was not for the faint of heart, yet its “blood-drenched, innocence-murdered gallows” humor in Snyder’s hands was “a thrilling piece of theater.” (our review)

   
Liz Hoffman in Last Night of Ballyhoo
The Last Night of Ballyhoo 

Project 891 Theatre (Nov 2010)
By Alfred Uhry
Directed by
Jason W. Rost
our review 

Project 891 created an intimate and emotionally mature depiction of a Jewish family of the American South right on the cusp of World War II and the Holocaust. Sort of fitting in, but not quite, informed by the culture surrounding them, yet set apart, director Jason W. Rost gently unraveled this family’s issues around identity, belonging and success at the Gunther Mansion (now known as the North Lakeside Cultural Center). Darrelyn Marx dominated as the matriarch Boo and Liz Hoffman generated much sympathy as her awkward daughter Lala. Winning and balanced performances from Sarah Latin-Kasper, Jason Kellerman, Lori Grupp, Larry Garner and Austin Oie rounded out the cast. (our review)

 

   
memory-backstage-theatre-photo-by-heath-hays
Memory 

BackStage Theatre  (Nov 2010)
Written and
Jonathan Lichtenstein
Directed by Matthew Reeder
our review  |  photo album

Director Matthew Reeder and cast evolved rich, enmeshed and powerful emotional journeys, from rehearsal process to fully realized production, from a woman’s struggle to tell the complete story of her traumatic survival of the Holocaust to a Palestinian’s story about his embattled and complex relationship with an Israeli soldier. Says Allegra Gallian of the Backstage Theatre’s production, “The stage chemistry is genuine and emanates throughout the space . . . performances grow to become so emotionally charged that they grab hold of the audience, captivating us so it’s impossible to look away as the ensemble digs down to the deepest point of authentic emotion.” (our review)

 

   
Mimesophobia - Theatre Seven - Carlos Murillo
Mimesophobia 

Theatre Seven (March 2010)
Written by
Carlos Murillo
Directed by
Margot Bordelon 
our review 

Theatre Seven’s production crowned a season full of excellent deconstructive theatrical storytelling. Margot Bordelon’s driven and well-paced direction expertly juggled three storylines regarding the mysterious murder of a woman. Oliver Sava noted the savvy Brechtian distancing wrought by the intelligent cast and the emotional immediacy supplied by Cassy Sander’s performance. “Sanders brings vulnerability . . . her scenes are the most visceral of the production . . . Mimesophobia is a huge success for the young company and one of the more refreshing plays to land this season.” (our review)

 

   
My Brothers Keeper - Black Ensemble Theatre
My Brother’s Keeper 

Black Ensemble Theater  (March 2010)
Written by
Rubin D. Echoles 
Directed by
Jackie Taylor  
our review  |  photo album

Though light on storytelling, Black Ensemble Theatre’s recreation of the dancing career of the uber-talented Nicholas Brothers was as close to seeing the originals as audiences are bound to get. Jackie Taylor directed an exuberant production overflowing with swinging musical finesse and huge dancing talent. Rashawn Thompson and Rubin Echoles played Fayard and Harold Nicholas to Thomas “Tom Tom 84” Washington’s musical arrangements and Echoles’ choreography. Donald Barnes and Dawn Bless warmly rounded out the tale as the boys’ vaudeville-bound parents; Michael Bartlett and Rhonda Preston added showbiz flare and power as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Big Maybelle. All in all, the cast excelled in reviving the joy of pure, solid entertainment. (our review)

 

   
Speed-the-Plow by David Mamet - American Theater Company
Oleanna / Speed-the-Plow

American Theater Company (Sept 2010)
Written by David Mamet  
Directed by
Rick Snyder  
our review

American Theater Company scored big with two searing, back-to-back productions of David Mamet. Director Rick Snyder had a field day building a war between a student and professor over a slight, but fatal, misstep versus a showdown between big commercial movie business and art. Darrell W. Cox expertly worked his range between playing a slick, cut-throat producer in one and a smug, self-compromised liberal arts professor in the other. The difference between the two Mamet works may have been Nicole Lowrance’s sympathetic portrayal of Carol in Oleanna, which rang more truthful and well timed than her turn as Karen in Speed the Plow. All the same, Lance Baker oozed fierce sleazebag perfection in his role as Charlie Fox, bringing Plow to a devastating end. (our reviews here and here)

 

   
A Parallelogram by Bruce Norris - at Steppenwolf Theatre
A Parallelogram 

Steppenwolf Theatre (July 2010)
Written by
Bruce Norris
Directed by
Anna D. Shapiro
our review 

Written by Bruce Norris—a Steppenwolf regular whose other works include We All Went Down to Amsterdam and The Pain and the Itch, among others—the play tells the tale of Bee (Kate Arrington), a woman who was the other woman to Jay (Tom Irwin) before he left his wife for her. They live in an unremarkable home with a pool and a backyard, which is cared for by JJ (Tim Bickel), the friendly Guatemalan landscaper. With this production it’s clear that Director Anna Shapiro knew this material well. She came at the heady story with a comedic eye, which relieved the pretension that could so easily have sunk the play. Said our own Keith Ecker: “If you only see one play this year, see (this play).…the set design by Todd Rosenthal is amazing. …Parallelogram has one of the most eye-popping set transitions I have ever seen.”  (our review)

 

     
Ragtime - Drury Lane Oakbrook
Ragtime
 

Drury Lane Theatre (April 2010)
Book by Terrance McNally
Music/Lyrics by
Flaherty and Ahrens 
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
our review  |  photo album

Other productions have lost focus and been crushed under the multiple layers and storylines of this musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s novel. Yet, Drury Lane, under Rachel Rockwell’s knowing direction, succeeded in taking its panoramic 19th century sweep and transforming it into a work that truly earns the word “epic.”  Brilliantly cast with Quentin Earl Darrington, Valisia LeKae, Cory Goodrich and Mark David Kaplan, Ragtime’s spare and fluid set design was offset by Santo Loquasto’s lush costuming for the strongest visual impact. John Beer of TimeOut Chicago recognized “this Ragtime yields a snapshot of a nation recognizably our own: dynamic, idealistic and terminally haunted by bigotry and fear.”  (our review)

 

   
Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad - Silk Road Theatre Project Scorched 

Silk Road Theatre Project  (Oct 2010)
Written by
Wajdi Mouawad  
Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Dale Heinen   
our review 

Silk Road Theatre Project breathed life into a contemporary yet timeless tale of war, poverty, age-old gender inequities, lost family threads, and finding a restored sense of self out of the ashes. Dale Heinen’s direction brought all the suspense of a mystery thriller without sacrificing the emotional weight that gave the play the quality of a Classical Greek Tragedy or a war story out of Bible. Three actresses, Rinska M. Carrasco, Carolyn Hoerdemann and Diana Simonzadeh, convincingly played Nawal, the Middle Eastern mother who mysteriously stops speaking 5 years before her death and posthumously sends her twin children on a quest to find their father and brother. Adam Poss was riveting as Nihad—the pop music and celebrity obsessed jihadi sniper who becomes inextricably linked with their lives. The sterling production of this new work announced Wajdi Mouawad as a playwright to watch. (our review)

 

      
anton-chekhov-the-seagull-01-goodman-theatre-photo-by-liz-lauren
The Seagull

Goodman Theatre  (Oct 2010)
Written by Anton Chekhov
directed by Robert Falls
our review  photo album

Director Robert Falls wowed audiences with a simple, almost ascetic, presentation of Anton Chekhov’s sprawling tale of a dysfunctional theater family. Mary Shen Barnidge of Windy City Times noted that the production demanded much from both performers and audience but “The experience is well worth the effort . . . with intimacy generated by this Spartan approach illuminating the smallest secrets hidden beneath the surface of the most self-effacing personalities.” Our own Catey Sullivan raved, “Falls and his rock star cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and glory that makes the piece fly by . . . When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.” (our review)

 

   
Side Man at Metroplis Arts
Side Man 

Metropolis Performing Arts Centre (March 2010)
Written by
Warren Leight
Directed by Lauren Rawitz  
our review  |  photo album

Warren Leight’s Tony Award-winning play was no maudlin sulkfest on the downward spiraling fortunes of jazz musicians tending to a diminishing art. If anything, director Lauren Rawitz followed the play’s emphasis on strong individual characterization and an unsentimental view of the unstable nature of artistic life. The tough, moxie and cohesive cast captured Leight’s humorous and gritty take on the lives of jazzmen and the women who love them. Michael B. Woods gave an especially stellar performance as Jonesy and Ryan Hallahan’s wry Clifford grounded the show as its narrator. Dustin Efrid’s neon set design gave the production the just the right touch of bluesy feel. (our review)

 

   
Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union
State of the Union 

Strawdog Theatre (October 2010)
Written by
Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay
Directed by
Geoff Button
our review 

For a political play to matter much, it must prove its relevance beyond its genesis. These dramas must rise above the particulars of their time-sensitive plots and reveal to us a greater truth, something about the human condition or the faults of our society.State of the Union, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, is an example of this brilliant kind of evergreen political theatre, especially as its tale of political gaming and pandering is as true today as it ever was then. Infused with the talent of the Strawdog Theatre Company, this work managed to not only serve as editorial but as a charmingly funny piece of theatre.  Geoff Button’s direction was commendable, especially given the sheer number of entrances and exits he had to manage throughout the play. (our review)

     
streetcar named desire - tennessee williams - writers theatre
A Streetcar Named Desire
 

Writers’ Theatre (May 2010)
Written by
Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Cromer
our review 

David Cromer’s direction injected vitality and vivid perspective into Writers’ production of this sultry Williams classic. Barry Eitel remarked, “Instead of hashing out a bland carbon copy, Cromer finds all kinds of unique tricks in Tennessee’s text but . . . he maintains a sacred reverence for Williams and his blistering story . . . his Streetcar is a searing as July in the French Quarter.”  Matt Hawkins, Natasha Lowe and Stacy Stoltz carved new and original ground as Stanley, Blanche and Stella and Collette Pollard’s scenic design put the audience right in their squalid New Orleans apartment. Kerry Reid of the Chicago Reader wrote that Writers’ production “tears away at the Spanish moss of sentimentality that sometimes shrouds this play and lays bare our tragic flaws, both as individuals and as a people . . .”  (our review)

 

   
Tad in the 5th City - MPAACT Chicago
Tad in the 5th City 

MPAACT  (May 2010) 
Directed and Adapted by
Carla Stillwell  
From the poetry of
Orron Kenyatta
our review 

MPAACT gave Chicago a visceral shot in the arm with its world premiere adaptation about the aftermath of the 1968 riots that burned the West side of Chicago. Our K. D. Hopkins praises the outstanding cast that poetically depicts the community that survived in the ashes. “The magnificent Andre Teamer plays Uncle Brotha with the desperation and hope of a man watching his neighborhood swirl down the sewer . . . David Goodloe is new to America . . . His portrayal of James is like an exposed nerve . . . Destin L. Teamer . . . son of Andre Teamer . . . is an adorable and handsome young man in the 5th grade and yet he turns in a performance of a seasoned veteran . . . his portrayal is savvy and heartbreaking . . . MPAACT has produced yet another honest and powerhouse addition to the Chicago theater scene.” (our review)

 

   
The Tallest Man at Artistic Home
The Tallest Man 

The Artistic Home  (June 2010)
Written by
Jim Lynch 
Directed by
John Mossman  
our review

The Artistic Home evoked intense cultural accuracy and emotional veracity with their rendering of Jim Lynch’s turn-of-the-century Irish township, where people scramble for survival under British rule, the memory of the Potato Famine a lurking shadow of the recent past. A consummate ensemble effort by the cast brought out the best in Jim Lynch’s script. K. D. Hopkins writes, “The language is coarse and the action naturalistic. There is blood, sweat, spit and lust in every scene both implied or seen. John Mossman directs this production seamlessly . . .” (our review)

   
To Master The Art - Timeline Theatre Chicago
To Master the Art 

Timeline Theatre (Nov 2010)
Written by William Brown and Doug Frew
Directed by William Brown
our review

Timeline’s first commissioned play was a “masterful, multilayered experience that excites all the senses,” said Leah Zeldes. The production gently folded in Cold War obsessions about Communism with Julia Child’s discovery of French cuisine and her efforts to compose and publish her groundbreaking cookbook. (our review) Karen James Woditsch, Craig Spidle, Terry Hamilton, Jeannie Affelder and Ann Wakefield led the superbly balanced ensemble cast. William Brown’s staging was “impeccable” around scenic designer Keith Pitts’ charming Parisian kitchen.  (our review)

   
Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and Dan McArdle in Water Engine - Theatre Seven
The Water Engine: An American Fable 

Theatre Seven  (Nov 2010)
Written by
David Mamet 
Directed by
Brian Golden  
our review  photo album

Theatre Seven took on a feat of virtuosity when they mounted this play-within-a-radio-play, with 10 actors taking on 40 roles, in a exploration of a Depression Era inventor’s quest to implement his creation, an engine that runs on pure water. The cast impressed with its uncommon professionalism, working together “like a well-oiled machine,” and Director Brian Golden “effectively blends radio-style performance with more animated action in imaginative ways.” Leah A. Zeldes called the production “beautifully nuanced” and while Mamet’s plot “is stridently black and white, it’s also edge-of-the-seat suspenseful . . .” (our review)

   
Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Virginia Woolf - Steppenwolf Theatre
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
 

Steppenwolf Theatre (Dec 2010)
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by Pam McKinnon
our review

Steppenwolf rounded out their year with a tightly drawn, tensely wound portrait of America’s favorite warring couple, George and Martha. Pam McKinnon’s direction insisted on greater naturalism, with Tracy Letts’ consummate performance as George taking on subtler shades of calculation and sadism, while Amy Morton’s Martha was distinctly more understated and vulnerable. (See our review here.) Madison Dirks’ Nick charmed as a budding player who gets played and Carrie Coon’s Honey almost stole the show with her emblematic mixture of goofiness and pathos. Kris Vire of TimeOut Chicago recognizes that MacKinnon’s direction “hugs curves in a way one suspects wouldn’t be possible without the firm rapport between Morton and Letts.” A marriage made in hell for the characters–but a marriage made in heaven for Chicago audiences.  (our review)

All summaries written by Paige Listerud.

     
     

REVIEW: Travels With My Aunt (Writers’ Theatre)

     
     

‘Travels’ a fun journey if a dated theme

     
     

Jeremy Sher, Sean Fortunato, LaShawn Banks and John Hoogenakker in TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

  
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Travels With My Aunt
  
Adapted by Giles Havergal
From
novel by Graham Greene
Directed by
Stuart Carden
Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon, Glencoe (map)
Through March 27  | 
tickets: $45–60 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Written at the height of the "turn on, tune in, drop out" era, Graham Greene’s 1969 novel, "Travels with My Aunt",now being staged in a whimsical, well-theatrical adaption by Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, has not aged well. And not only does its theme — a decorously straight-laced man discovering the enlightening aspects of kicking off the traces of comfortably respectable morality — come across as dated in these straitened times, when comfort, respectability and morality seem both highly desirable and all too rare. but the notoriously philandering Greene’s depiction of women is unflattering, chauvinistic and antediluvian in the extreme.

Sean Fortunato and John Hoogenakke in TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.There are four female characters of any significance in Greene’s novel, and all but one of them is relentlessly pursuing a man. First and foremost, we have Aunt Augusta — who for all her vigorous unconventionality, can’t travel without a man beside her — bent on reuniting with Mr. Visconti, the war criminal who has already once relieved her of a fortune. Then, there’s the hippie girl Tooley, bound for Kathmandu in the wake of a boyfriend who walked out on her in anger because she got pregnant. And Miss Patterson, so taken with her brief encounter with a married man that she’s spent her lifetime drooping beside his grave. Only Miss Keene, a kind of wistfully idealistic figure in the novel, holds back from degrading herself for the sake of a man, and that seems mainly because she’s too timid to do otherwise.

In his clever, 1989 theatrical adaptation, Giles Havergal tries to solve this flaw by doing away with women altogether: The female characters are still there, but they’re all played by men. Four male actors, identically clad in three-piece, gray, pin-striped suits and derby hats, portray some 25 characters, male and female, minor and major, as well as alternating as the retired-banker antihero, Henry Pulling. Pulling, a mild-mannered stay-at-home, encounters his elderly and surprising Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than 50 years at his mother’s funeral, and winds up led by her on a series of unlikely adventures across England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Argentina and Paraguay, bending his mind and his morals.

While sticking rather closely to the novel, Havergal nevertheless freshens the story by decentralizing Pulling’s emotional journey and the then-shocking-now-bland aspects of Greene’s mildly salacious novel and putting an emphasis on the ridiculous. He doesn’t quite fix the problems, but watching Travels with My Aunt becomes much more entertaining than reading the book. At Writers’ Theatre, Director Stuart Carden and his fine cast give us an intimate journey with sharp staging and wonderfully nuanced comic acting.

While each of the four players — LaShawn Banks, Sean Fortunato, John Hoogenakker and Jeremy Sher — portray Henry at various times, sometimes rapidly switching off from one to another, each also portrays multiple other characters, and specializes in one of the major roles.

John Hoogenakke and Sean Fortunato iin TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.Banks gives us Wordsworth, Augusta’s often buffoonish African valet and lover, whom she cruelly dismisses for Visconti. His performance in that role sometimes seems tentative, as if he’s uncomfortable in it. He’s terrific, though, as a Cockney cabbie, a fortunetelling friend of Augusta’s and in other roles.

Fortunato stumbled over a few lines on opening night, but that scarcely impaired his wonderfully evocative performance as Augusta, a switchover he accomplishes seemingly effortlessly, just by body posture, even before he opens his mouth. Hoogenakker’s comic switches run more deadpan as he portrays Tooley with a flat Midwestern accent and her father, the CIA man, with a sort of Texan twang that contrast ideally with the British tones of the other characters.

Perhaps funniest of all, the stone-faced Sher’s mostly voiceless primary role is one of onstage sound-effects man, using everything from wine glasses to an umbrella to enhance the on-stage action. (Kudos also to sound designer Mikhail Fiksel.)

The foursome travels together brilliantly, making this a trip worth going on, even if you don’t care for the journey’s final destination.

  
  
Rating:  ★★★
  
  

John Hoogenakke, LaShawn Banks and Sean Fortunato in TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

 

  
  

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REVIEW: She Loves Me (Writers Theatre)

Writers’ creates a sweet-smelling love story

 

Kevin Gudahl, Heidi Kettenring and Bernard Balbot in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

   
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
She Loves Me
  
Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by
Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Directed by
Michael Halberstam
at
Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe (map)
through November 21st  |  tickets: $65-$70   |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

When a day brings petty aggravations and my poor frayed nerves are all askew, I forget these unimportant matters pouring out my hopes and dreams to you.’

Writers’ Theatre presents She Loves Me, a romantic comedy written in the 1930’s that went Broadway (1960’s) before going Hollywood (1990’s) – all originating from the the 1930’s play Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklós László. This original “You’ve Got Mail” is set in a 1930’s perfumery. Georg and Amalia are bickering co-workers. Unbeknownst to either, they are also anonymous pen pals in a lonely hearts club. The big clandestine meet-up disappoints and surprises both of them. Can Heidi Kettenring and James Rank in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. detestation blossom into affection? In a time when relationships bud, bloom, and wither with a Facebook status click, She Loves Me is an uncomplicated, lyrical love letter. Writers’ Theatre delivers this old-fashion romance with first- class singing, certifiable casting, and collectible vintage costumes.

The four-piece orchestra is faintly visible but perfectly audible on the stage behind a faux storefront. Under the musical direction of Ben Johnson, the band hits the whimsical balance to accompany the action and the singers. Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock developed a score that showcases each ensemble member with a solo opportunity. Individually, the singing is outstanding. Collectively, a repetitive number thanking customers is a hilarious, harmonious, memorable send-off. In the leads, Rod Thomas (Georg) and Jessie Mueller (Amalia) channel the hate-love in a believable comedy combo as scorned co-workers and love-searching optimists. Thomas brings ice cream to a depressed Mueller in a pivotal scene that is a sweet she-likes-me moment. Thomas is all sugar (again) to Mueller’s salt in the cutesy pairing of opposites. Under the direction of Michael Halberstam, the entire cast blends together to create an enjoyable light, breezy romantic scent. Providing powerful whiffs with a lingering sass, Heidi Kettenring (Ilona) sings of betrayal and new love with wit and resolution. Setting the ambiance for a romantic atmosphere, Jeremy Rill is the animated waiter dishing up laughs with a side of showboat.

 

James Rank and Bethany Thomas in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. Rod Thomas and Jessie Mueller in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.
Jessie Mueller in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. Jeremy Rill, Bethany Thomas and Andrew Goetten in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. Ross Lehman, Kevin Gudahl and Rod Thomas in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

Dressing up the ensemble with 30’s finery, Nan Zabriskie provides a multitude of exquisite costumes. The chorus coming and going from the shop provide a marathon vintage fashion show. Beautiful! Halberstam, along with choreographer Jessica Redish, provide many amusing, visual stunners, including; Christmas shopping and silhouette dancing. Not quite the Anna Karenina of romantic literature, She Loves Me has all the guarantees of a blockbuster romantic comedy. It requires limited emotional or intellectual investment and promises laughs and a happy ending. She Loves Me makes finding love simply a pluck of the petal to determine the emotional connection: she loves me, she loves me not, she loves me… Aw, if it was only that easy, dear friend!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Running time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes a ten minute intermission

 Rod Thomas, Kelli Clevenger, James Rank, Bethany Thomas, Kevin Gudahl and Stephanie Herman in SHE LOVES ME - now playing at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe.

 

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REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire (Writer’s Theatre)

A wrenching ‘Streetcar’ of desire

 

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Writers’ Theatre presents
  
A Streetcar Named Desire
  
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by
David Cromer
at
Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe (map)
through July 11  tickets: $65  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

David Cromer has quite a gift. Apparently, he can rescue any brilliant yet overdone play from the annals of community theatre and breathe a vibrant energy into those dusty scripts. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe considering his ingenious productions of Our Town and Picnic. We can now add to the pile of evidence his A Streetcar Named Desire over at Writers’ Theatre.

streetcar03 This production is a revival in the true sense of the word. Instead of hashing out a bland carbon copy, Cromer finds all kinds of unique tricks in Tennessee’s text but all the while he maintains a sacred reverence for Williams and his blistering story. As a result, his Streetcar is as searing as July in the French Quarter.

The play, Williams’ finest, is epic in scale. It explores domestic abuse, deceit, homosexuality in post-WWII America, love, and a ton of sex, along with Chekhovian-style class conflicts. Cromer gathers all of this and crams it onto the tiny stage at Writer’s. Collette Pollard’s brilliantly intimate design places the audience a few feet away from the action. You cannot help but feel voyeuristic as you watch Stella, Stanley, and Blanche claw and clutch at each other.

What makes the production crash along, however, are the individualistic, desperate performances. From his first step on-stage, Matt Hawkins makes some bizarre choices as Stanley. He’s sleazy, cocky, yet lovable. Even though he explodes often, he’s not incessantly threatening. He has to frequently remind himself that he is king of his castle, making him a man and not a monster. Hawkins makes no attempt at a Brando impression, but Writer’s production doesn’t need nor want that. It also helps that he shares the stage with two powerful females—Natasha Lowe’s reserved Blanche and Stacy Stoltz’s compelling Stella. Lowe doesn’t steep Blanche in sexuality, but pushes her cold shrewdness instead. She slashes away at those around her as she is ripped apart herself. Lowe’s Blanche is neither saint nor villain. Stoltz, Hawkins’ real-life wife, turns in some great work in a part that can be overlooked if a director isn’t careful. I’m used to her performing in stylized pieces with The Hypocrites and House Theatre, so it was refreshing to see her in some classic American realism. Her Stella is a fighter, refusing to be steamrolled by Stanley’s machismo. The relationship between the two is fascinating to watch unfold—you can sense real love between them, not just animal desire (although there is a lot of that, inches away from our seats). This forces us to ask if love is enough for a marriage, because their love is definitely not healthy. Although Stanley is convinced all their problems stem from Blanche, to us there seems to be a fundamental disconnect.

stacy-stoltz-as-stella streetcar02

Throughout the piece, Cromer sprinkles in original tweaks that make the production shine and resonate. The ghosts that sweep through Blanche’s mind are put on stage, for example. Williams’ script is also hyper-sexualized here. The production would never pass censors in the 1950s, but today it rips open the major theme of the play: desire. Cromer seems to have a desire for flame on-stage, because he utilizes it so well. The scene between Blanche and Mitch (the laudable Danny McCarthy), where Blanche lays out some secrets, is stunning because most of it is lit by candlelight alone. Cromer is brave and bold—many of his choices bring the audience into his characters’ heads, especially the unstable Blanche.

My one critique of the show is that there are some sightline issues, deriving from both the cramped set and some of the staging. At times it seemed like turning the actors a few degrees would have solved it, which is why it became a bit pesky. However, it was not nearly enough to derail my involvement with this piece. Cromer corrals us into this world, and the powerful ensemble drags us along whether we like heading towards the impending cliff or not. When the house lights finally turn on, it feels like a tiny chunk of your soul has been ripped away.

   
  
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

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FEATURING: Loren Lazerine, Natasha Lowe, Danny McCarthy, Rosario Vargas, Matt Hawkins, Jenn Engstrom, Esteban Andres Cruz, Stacy Stoltz, Carolyn E. Nelson, Derek Hasenstab and Ryan Hallahan

PRODUCTION TEAM
Scenic Design by Collette Pollard
Lighting Design by Heather Gilbert
Costume Design by Janice Pytel
Sound Design by Josh Schmidt
Properties Design by Meredith Miller

REVIEW: The Old Settler (Writers Theatre)

Harlem drama ignites with Cheryl Lynn Bruce at the helm

old-settler013

Writers’ Theatre presents:

The Old Settler

 

by John Henry Redwood
directed by Ron OJ Parsons
through March 28th (more info)

review by Oliver Sava

The title of John Henry Redwood‘s play refers to a woman past her thirties who has yet to find a husband and has no romantic prospects. Harlem, 1946, and that woman is Elizabeth Borny, pious, dignified, and played with great dimensionality by Cheryl Lynn Bruce. When she finds herself the object of handsome young boarder Husband Witherspoon’s (Kelvin Rolston, Jr.) affections, Elizabeth must overcome the great heartbreak of her past, an event she holds her sister Quillie (Wandachristine) responsible for.

old-settler011 Capturing both the joy of young love and the world-weariness of age, Bruce gives Elizabeth a young heart with an old soul. Bruce has a natural presence and charisma on stage, but her biggest accomplishment is her ability to portray a character that lacks the same features that make her such a memorable performer. Compared to the fast and loose women that are quickly becoming the norm, including Husband’s lost fiancee Lou Bessie (Alexis J. Rogers), Elizabeth is a relic of a more innocent time, a less desirable time, and Bruce makes her plain yet still captivating.

As a romance with Husband begins, Elizabeth blossoms into a new woman, wearing tight-fitting clothes, beautifully designed by Nan Cibula-Jenkins, and staying out until daybreak drinking champagne. These later scenes are when Bruce is able to finally let loose, especially in the confrontations she has with Quillie and Lou Bessie, allowing the emotional intensity of budding love to overcome her moral convictions. It is a mesmerizing character journey, and Bruce is ably assisted by her supporting cast.

Wandachristine finds a fine balance between sass and anxiety as Quillie, and while her relationship with Elizabeth is a source of drama, more importantly she is able to provide a good dose of humor in the production. Her constant fear of home-invading rapists and general disdain for what Harlem has become lighten the mood of the play, but she is more than able to hold her own when threatened.

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Lou Bessie shares a similarly brassy nature, but amplified by her experiences with the seedy figures of the Harlem social scene. When she enters Elizabeth’s home it is with a confidence that is hard to resist, and the major conflict of the play becomes whether or not Husband can overcome her influence. Husband, goofy yet charming, is a fish out of water in New York City, and Elizabeth serves as a connection to his southern roots. Rolston, Jr. has a sincerity that makes his relationship with Elizabeth very organic, but his naiveté ultimately proves his undoing.

Directed by Ron OJ Parsons, the ensemble and design team create a vision of 1946 Harlem that feels very authentic.Jack Magaw‘s set design allows for a wide range of movement, and the details like doilies on the armrests of the couch help make the time period even clearer. The Old Settler is a very solid production that is a great showcase for its leading lady’s talents, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce gives a great performance.

Rating: ★★★

 

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