Review: The Outgoing Tide (Northlight Theatre)

     
     

Northlight creates a compassionate, witty world premiere

     
     

John Mahoney (Gunner), Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and Rondi Reed (Peg)

  
Northlight Theatre presents
   
   
The Outgoing Tide
   
Written by Bruce Graham
Directed by BJ Jones
at North Shore Center the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $30-$50  |  more info 

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The shock of a loved one turning into a bewildered stranger—that’s the curse of Alzheimer’s Disease. Like the wrath of God, in this new work it’s visited on a small family living on the shore of the Chesapeake. But it could easily be any in the audience. That’s one reason The Outgoing Tide, an effective world premiere from Northlight Theatre, is as much a rehearsal for the future as theater can offer. The other is the utter honesty of BJ Jones casting and staging.

John Mahoney (Gunner) and Rondi Reed (Peg).Author Bruce Graham compassionately and wittily considers his play’s ongoing crisis—a father’s senility as a permanent impairment—from all sides. It’s wrenching to hear as confident an actor as John Mahoney, Chicago icon, suddenly descend into the depths of a terminal brain malfunction. His Gunner Concannon is a shanty-Irish success, a blue-collar trucker used to getting his way. But time is taking a daily toll: his tested but true wife Peg (down-to-earth Rondi Reed) faces “a new battle every day.” Gunner repeats himself, can’t remember basic information, recalls the past perfectly but forgets yesterday or who he’s with, and wanders away, helpless to return.

But, unlike Alzheimer patients in the later stages, Gunner can feel and taste his diminishing returns, enough to propose a terrifying idea to Peg and his son Jack (himself facing two other family crises, divorce and alienation from his teenage son). Like Willie Loman before him, Gunner will arrange an accident. The $2.4 million payout from this self-administered euthanasia will free himself from dependency and diapers in a hateful hospice, give Peg the comfortable future that that expense would have negated, and enable Gunner to open the restaurant he’s always dreamed of. But it has to be tomorrow because the future’s not on Gunner’s side: With winter approaching, a boat heading out will soon stand out.

Much of the play deals with the denial and panic triggered by Gunner’s decision to take his boat out and plunge himself into the “outgoing tide.” Peg despairs that, with Gunner gone, she’ll have no one to care for, though Jack (Thomas J. Cox, looking as bewildered as you’d expect) will need her even more now. Jack hates the thought that his dream depends on his dad’s death.

     
Rondi Reed (Peg) and John Mahoney (Gunner). Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and John Mahoney (Gunner).
Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and Rondi Reed Peg). John Mahoney (Gunner). Rondi Reed (Peg) and in the background Thomas J. Cox (Jack) in Northlight Theatre's "The Outgoing Tide" by Bruce Graham, directed by BJ Jones. Rondi Reed Peg) and Thomas J. Cox (Jack)

Clearly, this is no “On Golden Pond,” full of sentimental banter (“you old poop”) and analogies to lost loons. (It’s a lot more like Marsha Norman’s “’night, Mother,” where a suicide looms over, and finally finishes, the action.) There’s enough humor (what if a demented man, bent on murder-suicide, forgets to commit the second crime?) to leaven the loaf. The particulars of this beleaguered family are balanced against the universal plight that we’re all clocks fated to run down until we tick no longer. Flashbacks fill us in on a marriage that clearly grew from love into, well, whatever is left now.

Spry and game, Mahoney brings an energetic actor’s instincts to a part that doesn’t always need them. His sheer spryness somewhat blunts the seriousness of Gunner’s losing game, but it also makes his sudden losses of reality all the more wrenching. Reed exudes a feisty practicality that, alas, is useless in this family calamity. Cox depicts how cherished memories turn toxic when their source is no longer the person you grew up with.

Yes, The Outgoing Tide is definitely a promissory note for crises to come. See it now before the tide comes back.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Thomas J. Cox (Jack), John Mahoney (Gunner) and Rondi Reed (Peg).

Performances: through June 19th, with performances Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 1pm and 7:30pm, Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2:30pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays 2:30 and 7:00pm. (some variations may occur – check website for exact performance info)  Tickets: Tickets are $40-$50, and can be purchased by phone (847-673-6300) or online at www.northlight.org. Location: All performances take place at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie (map).

     
     

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REVIEW: Eclipsed (Northlight Theatre)

  
  

Fighting for decency, if not dignity

  
  

Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed

  
Northlight Theatre presents
  
Eclipsed
  
Written by Danai Gurira
Directed by Hallie Gordon
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Written in 2009 and featuring an all-female cast, this trenchantly topical drama brings to death—and life—the Liberian civil war as seen—and, more crucially, felt–by its most blatant victims/victors. These are women, specifically the four “wives” of a rebel officer in 2003. All but imprisoned in a compound in Bomi County, these polygamous Penelope Walker (Rita) and Alana Arenas (Helena) - Eclipsed at Northlightspouses of a commander of the LURD faction have managed to find a “separate peace” despite the bloodshed and the loss of everything that used to be normal.

Their survival strategies suggest many more coping mechanisms than the specific stories of four wives and the female peacekeeper who visits their bastion to offer them a way out. Hallie Gordon’s powerfully present staging keeps it so real (alas, even in the accents) that the intermission seems a rude reminder that it’s a play after all.

Helena (Alana Arenas, with the dignity of a demigoddess) is the #1 wife, too comfortable in her lockstep reliance on the unseen “husband.” Tamberla Perry is fire and fury as Maima, the second concubine, who has become a soldier in her warlord’s band and finds in her rifle the only strength she can muster in this misogynistic mess of an army camp. As Rita, the constantly pregnant third member of the harem, Penelope Walker finds a kind of security in her sheer fecundity.

As “The Girl,” the newest wife (#4) and still virtually a girl, Paige Collins is heartbreaking as the most innocent victim. Gradually this recruit, who entertains the others by being able to read about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky (to them, his #2 wife), is seduced by Maima into becoming a killer herself, looting clothes and jewelry from the unfortunate bystanders she exploits. She can no longer remember what her mother looked like but, clinging to what memories remain, renames herself “Mother’s Blessing” as a kind of reflexive homage.

Finally, there’s Bessie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), the odd woman out. An educated business woman searching for her missing daughter, she is now a
Red Cross peacekeeper who’s trying to broker a cease fire with the constantly shifting rebel factions. More directly, she offers the women a chance to remember their past—before rapes and murders became a way of death—and even contemplate a future.

        
Leslie Ann Sheppard (seated), Alana Arenas (standing) - Eclipsed Paige Collins (The Girl) in Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed 2
Paige Collins, Alana Arenas, Tamberla Perry, Leslie Ann Sheppard - Eclipsed Leslie Ann Sheppard, Alana Arenas, Paige Collins - Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre

Interestingly, it’s only at the end of Eclipsed, when the rebels’ sour victory against the thuggish Charles Taylor (currently being tried for war crimes and human rights abuses) leads to a king of peace that we even learn the real names of these interrupted lives. It’s heartbreaking to watch these four “Mother Courages” give up all spousal rivalries, break their wartime habits, and try to assume something like civilian lives. (well, not all succeed.)

What are they fighting for? They never really know. What matters is the sisterly solidarity that compensates for so much austerity and adversity. The sheer range of the characterizations never registers more than in the scene where, stage right, Maima is showing The Girl how to shoot a gun, while, on the other side, Bessie teaches Helena how to write the letter “A” in the sand.

So much of humanity lies between the literal sides of this stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Alana Arenas, Penelope Walker, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Paige Collins - Eclipsed

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REVIEW: The Hundred Dresses (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

   
  

Reducing childhood bullying one performance at a time

   
   

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 001

   
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
   
The Hundred Dresses
   
Written by Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills
Directed by
Sean Graney
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Dec 2   |  tickets: $26-$36  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

One in five students are bullied each year. 60% of students are bystanders to bullying*. Forty-five states, including Illinois, now have anti-bullying legislation. Bullying prevention programs have been shown to reduce school bullying by as much as 50%. To entertain and educate, Chicago Children’s Theatre remounts last season’s smash hit, The Hundred Dresses.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 008Peggy is rich. Wanda is poor. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. Clothing makes a fashion statement at Franklin Elementary School. Peggy is mean. Wanda is kind. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. The Hundred Dresses is a light-hearted musical dressed up to teach a powerful lesson. It’s theGlee” episode that harmonizes “Clueless” meets “Mean Girls”.

In their upbeat and high energy antics, these adult actors unleash the cute kid inside. Leslie Ann Sheppard (Maddie) is a shiny-happy sidekick to Natalie Berg’s (Peggy) self-absorbed diva. Berg balances over-the-top narcissism without becoming the villain. Berg charms in clueless oblivion. When she sings ‘you didn’t do anything wrong’ with perky sass, Sheppard’s soulful response ‘but I didn’t do anything right’ heightens in its profound simplicity. Sheppard’s subtle despair is a sweet awakening. The target of the teasing is Briana De Giulio (Wanda). De Giulio sings with hopeful pretend and a thick Polish accent. The interesting underlying story involves the overall acceptance of the other quirky playground kids. Andrew Keltz (Willie) is hysterical, arriving to school in various eccentric ensembles. Superman or robot, he doesn’t disguise his oddball ways that are just understood by the others. Elana Ernst (Cecile)is a tiara wearing, unicorn talking, ballerina wannabe. She looks and sounds like SNL alum, Cheri Oteri, with comedic timing and exasperated expressions to match. Geoff Rice (Jack) is the understated dreamer with a confident independence. The kids bond in a celebration of individuality.

Under the direction of Sean Graney and choreography of Tommy Rapley, the playful style is like a nursery rhyme game. It seems like it’s all fun and games until you really listen to the words. Jacqueline Firkins conjures up the perfect wardrobe to focus on dresses. The girls’ dresses are marvelously vibrant 50’s style. Watching the cast change it up, certainly promotes clothing envy. Is it the costumes? Is it the singing? Is it the dancing? Is it the cast? There are probably over 100 reasons to see The Hundred Dresses. The most important one is ‘because doing nothing is the worst of all.’ As grown-ups, we need to act to stop the bullying in schools. An easy and entertaining way is to take a kid or two (or a classroom!) to this production, which helps kids learn important life lessons in an entertaining way. Go see it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
   

The Hundred Dresses plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 10:30 a.m; Saturdays and Sundays at 1p.m.    Running time is sixy minutes with no intermission. *Statistics about bullying from Newsweek Magazine, October 10 issue.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 006 The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 002

All press photos by Michael Brosilow

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REVIEW: A Civil War Christmas (Northlight Theatre)

     
     

History and make-believe, perilously intermixed, lack focus

     
     

Felicia P. Fields with the cast of A Civil War Christmas

   
Northlight Theatre presents
   
A Civil War Christmas
   
Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by
Henry Godinez
at
Northshore Center for Performing Arts (map)
Through Dec 19  |  tickets: $35-$55  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Paula Vogel is a playwright who divides in order to conquer: Her plays depict our socio/political/sexual differences, only to connect us to a larger linkage. How I Learned To Drive, Desdemona, The Baltimore Waltz and And Then There Were Seven scrutinized, respectively, incest, miscegenation, AIDS and same-sex love to put them in a context that discourages kneejerk repudiation and warrants something like understanding bordering on tolerance (well, not for child sex abuse, of course).

001_Khori Faison and Mildred Marie LangfordSet in the grim, war-torn winter of 1864 and on the supposedly special night of Christmas Eve, Vogel’s latest work in progress, now at Northlight Theatre, recalls Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” as it depicts a fugitive slave searching the dangerous streets of Washington D.C. for the daughter from whom she was separated after her arrival on the Underground Railroad. In ironic contrast, a mood-swinging Mary Todd Lincoln is on her own search—for the perfect Christmas tree to ensure domestic tranquility.

Since Vogel’s plays separate only in order to reconnect, their paths are bound to connect and connect and connect. Vogel contrives to create at least two non-factual Christmas miracles before these busy 150 minutes finally end. Before then she opens a time capsule that’s both absorbingly actual and problematically imagined. The result is a cross-section of life in wartime Washington that’s enriched immeasurably by carols like Longfellow’s “I Heard The Bells” and “What Child Is This?,” spirituals like “There Is A Balm in Gilead” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” (a guide for escaping slaves), and Civil War anthems (“While We Were Marching Through Georgia” and “The Liberty Ball”).

Between the songs the often cluttered action depicts both sides of a dangerously divided capital circa December 24, 1864. John Wilkes Booth (Derek Hasenstab) and his clumsy conspirators try to kidnap Lincoln. Lincoln (Will Clinger) improbably wanders off in the middle of the night to his Summer Cottage, reciting deathless phrases from his upcoming inaugural address and briefly glimpsing the lost former slave girl. Manic, extravagant, and driven, Mary Todd Lincoln (Paula Scrofano) manages to find her rare fir tree, which should have gone to the orphan home run by her African American seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (Felicia P. Fields), to socialize at a Washington charity event, to chat with Anna Surratt (who’s related to one of her husband’s future murderers), and to visit a dying boy in a soldiers’ hospital. (Maybe there were three Mary Todd Lincolns wandering Washington on this holy night.)

Less well known characters mix with the historical. Willy Mack (Samuel Robertson), who remembers how the Rebels slaughtered the black soldiers at Fort Pillow after they’d peacefully surrendered, vows to take no prisoners: Will he kill a 13-year-old Southern farm boy who wants to fight for Moseby’s Raiders but got lost? Two black soldiers are delegated to steal the much-moving Christmas tree from the Executive Mansion (it wasn’t the White House for another half century) and surprisingly succeed. Jewish soldiers hold a seder.

On this busy night we also catch name-dropping glimpses of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Lincoln’s advisor and former law clerk Nikolai, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton , Clara Barton (bringing in the wounded by ship), conspirators Lewis Payne and John Surratt, Elizabeth Thomas (who founded a shelter for wartime refugees), Longfellow, the ghost of Elizabeth’s murdered son, and Walt Whitman (dressing soldiers’ wounds and doubling as St. Nicholas).

In short, A Civil War Christmas lives up to its generic name with awesome specificity, not that the revelations it delivers can be entirely trusted. In the second act the overlapping and sprawling scenes become overcharged as well: The script, bent on at least two happy endings and as many messages of hope, slowly sprouts more contrived coincidences than Dickens would have dared. At least Ragtime, which this show most closely resembles, restricted its mix of historical and imaginary characters to four easily followed and separate-but-equal plotlines, eventuating in a believable but very different family from the traditional one seen at the musical’s beginning.

Director Henry Godinez and a superb cast of Chicago pros and young acolytes work like plow horses to shape and sort out this A.D.D. plethora of multiple narratives and messages. But it still helps if you’re a Civil War buff specializing in the winter of 1864. The point beyond the plots is a strong one. As Vogel says, in 2010 as well as 146 years ago, community values count just as much or more than family values. But if manufacturing feel-good resolutions and ignoring the horrible context of a fratricidal national insurrection is the way to preach that gospel, I’m not a believer. But the ballads, like the exquisite “Yellow Rose of Texas,” are glorious stuff. This show sings far more powerfully and persuasively than it speaks.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

003_Cast of A Civil War Christmas

  
  

REVIEW: Daddy Long Legs (Northlight Theatre)

 

Tuneless letter reading makes a dull ‘Daddy’

 

Robert Adelman Hancock and Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.

   
Northlight Theatre presents
   
Daddy Long Legs
    
Music/Lyrics by Paul Gordon,
Book by
John Caird
Directed by John Caird
North Shore Center for Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
Through October 24  |  
Tickets: $45–55  |   more info 

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Based on a lively, epistolary, young-adult novel written in 1912 by Jean Webster, Northlight Theatre’s regional premiere Daddy Long Legs centers on Jerusha Abbott, "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home," who unexpectedly earns the offer to attend college sponsored by one of the orphanage trustees. That thrusts her into a world she’s never before known.

Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Webster’s story indeed has long legs — the author turned it into a stage play that ran on Broadway in 1914. Mary Pickford starred in a silent movie version in 1919, and the 1935 Shirley Temple film “Curly Top” was rooted in that film. A British stage musical called Love from Judy opened in 1952 and ran for two years, and Fred Astaire starred in a 1955 Hollywood musical version. It’s since become a Japanese animation and a Korean film. 

In Webster’s version of the tale, Jerusha details her collegiate adventures in a series of charming and unaffected letters to her carefully anonymous and unresponsive benefactor, "Mr. Smith," whom she nicknames "Daddy-Long-Legs." Although we may have our suspicions, readers don’t find out who Smith really is until Jerusha does — nearly at the end of the novel. Webster’s novel evolves into a romance, but lots of its charm comes from Jerusha’s descriptions of her hijinks at school. The dissatisfying new chamber musical by Paul Gordon and John Caird gives us little of that, concentrating on the incipient love affair.

We learn from the outset that Smith is really one Jervis Pendleton, a much younger man than Jerusha believes, and we watch as he falls in love through the mails and plots to meet his plucky protege. That removes most of the mystery and suspense.

For example, in the novel, we are as mystified as Jerusha when her sponsor won’t permit her to spend the summer in the Adirondacks with her college roommate, while the musical makes it clear his objection is to the roomie’s handsome brother.

Played by Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock, Jerusha and Jervis are the only characters. The focus remains on Jerusha and her letters, which she sings. While Daddy Long Legs isn’t quite a sung-through musical, these recitatives make up much of the play. McGinnis has a sweet voice and Hancock, who mainly sings backup, does fine, but the songs are undistinguished and Gordon’s score largely tuneless.

David Farley’s set is, for unknown reasons, littered with luggage, with a central moat full of suitcases and trunks that the actors keep circling, somewhat dizzily, though Jervis spends most of his time stuck rear stage in a book-lined office.

Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Robert Adelman Hancock in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.
Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.

Since the one-way nature of the correspondence prevents much back and forth between the two characters, the play becomes largely action-free. No matter how endearing, what makes for good narrative in a book becomes rather dull on stage. That might not matter so much if the music were more interesting, but as it is, the play needs more life and more people in it. In the novel, we get this though Jerusha’s rich descriptions of her friends and others she interacts with.

In the first song, "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home," we get a little of this, as Jerusha mimics people at the orphanage. Had this kind of characterization continued through the musical, it might have worked. But from then on, the singing letters do more telling than showing. McGinnis’s charming and animated performance goes far to make up for this, but not far enough.

Moreover, for all its modernisms in terms of cast and staging, Daddy Long Legs seems overly old-fashioned and simple. A story aimed at young girls in 1912 rather lacks spice for adult audiences a century later.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.

 

 

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REVIEW: Low Down Dirty Blues (Northlight Theatre)

Cheer up with some low down blues

 Low Down Dirty Blues018

  
Northlight Theatre presents
   
Low Down Dirty Blues
   
Created by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman
Directed by
Randal Myler
Music direction by
Dan Wheetman
through July 3rd  | 
tickets: $39-$54  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘How can I be over the hill if I never made it to the top?’ Life musings are chatted and sang about afterhours at a Chicago South Side nightclub… interestingly, it’s a Saturday afternoon in Skokie. Northlight Theatre presents the world premiere of Low Down Dirty Blues at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Created and directed by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, Low Down Dirty Blues is a show  Gergory (2940) vfeaturing a collection of blues songs intermingled with life stories from the singers. Big Mama’s, a fictional nighttime hotspot, has been created onstage with the authentic look that transports the audience from northern suburbs to the urban South Side.

Low Down Dirty Blues is a tribute to a passing musical genre. The performers sing the blues about singing the blues. Originating in the 1920’s, blues songs were a voice for the African American culture during an oppressive time. Over the decades, the musical stylings have been glamorized and made famous by Chicago. Without the severity of segregation and discrimination conditions, the blues have become more playful – no matter what the political or social climate is, men and women will always be trying to get their mojo working. Low Down… is an evening of sultry, sexy fun that makes you ‘Shake Your Money Maker.’

‘My Stove’s in Good Condition” is one of many song titles that would appear mundane. But the way Felicia P. Fields sings about cleaning her range, puts household appliances on the aphrodisiac list. The sexual innuendos are belted out with soul and sass. Fields uses her powerful voice to warn men ‘Don’t Jump My Pony’ if you don’t know how to ride. She’s hilarious! In the very familiar ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ Fields transitions from her bawdy self to melancholy with sweet sadness. The songs are relationship advice with good natured wisdom interspersed with memories of bad times. The charming Mississippi Charles Bevel sings mischievously about where to put his jelly and later poignantly about ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ Gregory Porter shares personal despair singing ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ as the target of female angst. Later, his rendition of ‘Change is Gonna Come’ is gospel-quality inspirational. Leading the magnificent singing quartet, Sandra Reaves-Phillips IS Big Mama. Playing an aged singer and nightclub owner, Reaves-Phillips holds court perched on a pile of pillows. From ‘They Call Me Big Mama’ to ‘Lord, I Tried’, Reaves-Phillips has the legendary blues voice. It’s deep and rich with crackly hints of a smoky lifestyle. Throughout the show, Reaves-Phillips makes side comments, slaps her ass and drinks from a flask. She is pure Blues Club Diva!

 

Gregory, Mississippi (front) h Felicia P. Fields, v

Under the musical direction of Dan Wheetman, the singing is sensational. Under the direction of Randal Myler, the performers share personal strife glimpses between songs. A lesson in blues history is mingled in with humor. There is a great joke about a Chicago’s tourist definition of blues. For a genre established in segregation, these blues aren’t your grandma’s depression. Low Down Dirty Blues is high up sexy fun!

SIDEBAR: Two trains, two busses, an hour commute to get to Skokie to hear Chicago Blues. It’s ironic and sad. I live a ten minute cab ride from Kingston Mines. Low Down Dirty Blues reminded me how much I enjoy this type of music. If I don’t start going to blues clubs again, ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine.’

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

   Low Down Dirty Blues013

Running Time: Eighty minutes with no intermission

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REVIEW: A Life (Northlight Theatre)

Strong performances aren’t enough

 

Matt Schwader (Desmond), John Mahoney (Drumm), Penny Slusher (Dorothy) and Joanne Dubach (Dolly)

 
Northlight Theatre presents
 
A Life
 
By Hugh Leonard
Directed by BJ Jones
Through April 25 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Everything ought to add up to a fine show at Northlight Theatre with its current production, Irish playwright Hugh Leonard’s 1979 drama, A Life: A world-renowned playwright … excellent performances from a skilled, high-powered cast, headed up by no less an actor than the acclaimed John Mahoney … careful staging from a seasoned director, BJ Jones. Yet it all adds up to a less-than-rewarding experience.

John Mahoney (Drumm) and Linda Kimbrough (Mary) Even the director calls it "a small story." For the little that happens, it’s very slow-moving and very talky — all in a thick Irish brogue that muddies comprehension even as it adds authenticity. Jones, in the program, quotes Leonard: "Being an Irish writer both helps and hampers me. Hampers, because one is fighting the preconceptions of audiences who have been conditioned to expect both feyness and parochial subject matter; helps, because the writer can use a vigorous and poetic idiom which enables him to combine subtly with richness." The strong Irish tone in this production hampers more than it helps.

Leonard, known best for his Tony Award-winning related play, Da, died last year, and I assume that inspired this production, although Jones’ program notes say he’s been "toting around" this play since the ’70s. Jones clearly sees it as a vehicle for Mahoney, who plays the central character, Desmond Drumm.

The play takes Drumm, a secondary character in Leonard’s Da, and puts him front and center. At the end of his life, Drumm is taking stock. He’s spent a career as a civil servant in a tiny Irish town near Dublin, and now, he says, "I need to know what I amount to."

Not much. He’s a bitter, acerbic, judgmental old man. He hasn’t spoken to his closest friends for a half dozen years. His wife is afraid of him. His sense of self-importance, intellectual snobbery and curmudgeonliness have set him at odds with the warm-hearted, informal society in which he lives. He hates his job, but after a poor showing in his youth, he’s never dared reach for the political career he once aspired to.

Robert Belushi (Lar) and Matt Schwader (Desmond) Linda Kimbrough (Mary) and John Mahoney (Drumm)
Seated_ Melanie Keller (Mibs) and Matt Schwader (Desmond).  Standing_ John Mahoney (Drumm) and Linda Robert Belushi (Lar), Matt Schwader (Desmond), Joanne Dubach (Dolly) and Melanie Keller (Mibs) Bradley Armacost and Robert Belushi - Kearns_Lar

The play shifts back and forth between the Drumm of 1977 and the Drumm of 1937, taking with it his wife, Dolly, played alternately by Penny Slusher, as a worried, browbeaten but lovingly supportive spouse, and Joanne Dubach, as an eager young woman whom the priggish younger Drumm, portrayed dynamically by Matt Schwader, shows little interest in.

He’s in love — both ineffectually and patronizingly — with Mary, played strongly in youth by Melanie Keller and even more sharply in later life by Linda Kimbrough. She, however, marries the rather loutish and devil-may-care, but affectionate Lar Kearns, portrayed as a young man by a vigorous Robert Belushi and in older life by a hearty Bradley Armacost.

The two couples nonetheless have maintained a lifetime friendship, broken by a rift six years before the outset of the play. In his stocktaking, Drumm goes to visit the Kearnses, somewhat grudgingly, to make up the quarrel, and put himself back on good terms with Mary, the one person for whom he feels respect. Gradually, Drumm — as self-critical as he is fault-finding of others — comes to realize what he’s shut himself away from.

Yet it doesn’t make us like him any better.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

A free, related panel discussion, "How the Irish Saved Theatre: The Legacy of Irish Plays and Playwrights," takes place at Northlight at noon Saturday, April 10. Reservations required at (847) 679-9501, ext. 3555.

Seated_ Penny Slusher (Dorothy).  Standing_ John Mahoney (Drumm), Linda Kimbrough (Mary) and Bradley