Review: Samuel J. and K. (Steppenwolf Theatre)

  
  

Steppenwolf Young Adults feature plays it loose with plausibility, plot

  
  

Cliff Chamberlain and Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
Samuel J. and K.
   
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by
Ron OJ Parson
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through March 13  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There’s no shortage of local shout-outs in director Ron OJ Parson’s Naperville-based family drama. Its dialogue makes generous references to landmark spots and (much to the amusement of the opening morning’s audience) a neighboring rivalry. In promotional materials, playwright and suburban native Mat Smart suggests elements of the play are semi-biographical. The Young Adults presentation will play to many teens who directly relate to its characters and their circumstances. This play wants to be relevant, and wants to be real.

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.Its themes—identity, fate, racial definition, nature vs. nurture, brotherly love—are. So why do the stakes in Samuel J. and K. feel so low? And its story, lacking in authenticity?

Before adopted, black Samuel K. (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) walks to receive his college diploma, he and his older white brother Samuel J. (Cliff Chamberlain) indulge in a family tradition down at the basketball court. Too eager to wait, reaction-snap-cam in-hand, J. halts the game and begs K. to open his gift envelope; it contains two expensive, non-refundable, unsolicited and unwanted tickets to J.’s birth city in Cameroon.

Before the first pick-up game is over, the inciting argument comes to a head.

It’s also the audience’s first cue for a small suspension of disbelief: these Sams love each other and are close enough to talk smack and hip-check each other into chain link fences, but they’ve never had the adoptive ‘where is home really’ talk before? At that age? Having not yet built an understanding of the brothers’ dynamic, we’re launched into an issues talk before the relationship study has gotten a chance to get off the ground.

No sooner than we can ponder the implications of the gift or the risk of the trip are we whisked away to a mosquito net-lined bed in Africa—on the last day of the vacation.

Points where one would expect build—the inevitable second discussion (there had to have been more than one), the anxieties leading up to the trip, the arrival—are skipped over, making room for barely conceivable twists, including a borderline absurd subplot involving a mutual romantic interest. It’s a limp, manipulative device seemingly employed for no other purpose than to conjure a requisite “you’re not my real brother!”

Chamberlain makes do with his character’s under-supported choices, lending credibility to some of the play’s more outlandish ideas. As K., Roberson, Jr. has the tendency to over act, the perception of which is compounded by the valleys and holes in Smart’s script.

Lacking enough logic to create dramatic build, Samuel J. and K. is a two-man show in which the eponymous characters remain elusive. What are audiences—young or old—supposed to glean from that?

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
  
 

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REVIEW: The Seagull (Goodman Theatre)


          
           

Robert Falls allows this glorious ‘Seagull’ to soar

 

 

Nina (Heather Wood) listens as Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) talks about his obsession with writing and the fame that consequently follows as Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) looks on.

   
Goodman Theatre presents
   
The Seagull
   
Written by Anton Chekhov 
Directed by
Robert Falls 
Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
(map)
through November 21  |   tickets: $20-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

With The Seagull, Robert Falls makes a stunning 180-degree swerve from the massive, nearly operatic productions he’s staged over the past few years. If King Lear and Desire Under the Elms were thundering landslides of theatricality, The Seagull is a lone, perfect pebble. Which isn’t to say Falls’ take on Anton Chekhov’s ground-breaking masterpiece lacks the gob-smacking emotional heft of his overtly showier efforts. Far from it. Played by actors in minimal costumes on a bare stage, The Seagull is as thrilling a production as you’re apt to see this season – an example of storytelling at its most powerful. That Falls manages to enthrall without the help of conventional costumes, sets or even lighting design illustrates just how gifted the Goodman’s Artistic Director is.

(clockwise from front center) Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) informs Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Sorin (Francis Guinan) and Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy) that Nina has returned to town but will not see any of them.Another indication of Falls storytelling prowess: Two hours of The Seagull elapse before the audience is released for an intermission. We’d be the first to cry foul at such a demand. Holding your audience captive for 115 minutes? Not fair. Moreover, since the vast majority of the dialogue within The Seagull seems to deal solely with superficial inanities, such a marathon sit will surely be all but intolerable, yes? In this case, no. Falls and his rockstar cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and a glory that makes the piece fly by. Those first two hours feel like 20 minutes.

The intricate passions of Chekhov’s story are reflected in the sprawling cast, every member of which has their own vibrantly realized emotional life – right down to a cook (Laura T. Fisher) who has but a single line and less than a minute of stage time. When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.

The action – which is actually mostly dialogue – spans several years and takes place on the country estate of Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), a famed, vain actress for whom adulation is an opiate. Much of The Seagull focuses on Arkadina’s tectonic clashes with her angry young son Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush), a playwright struggling with love and art. The difference between mother and son is akin to the difference between Broadway in Chicago and any number of tiny, Off-Loop theaters. Which is to say: Konstantin, who sees his own art as pure, beautiful and meaningful while dismissing his mother’s shows as pandering tripe.

 

Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) expresses her deep passion and need for Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) to stay with her. Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan) seeks to numb her feelings and shut out the rest of the world.
Sorin (Francis Guinan) attempts to comfort Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) as he grapples with the complexities of his life. Nina (Heather Wood) performs in one of Konstantin’s plays in front of (l to r) Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy), Shamrayev (Steve Pickering), Polina (Janet Ulrich Brooks), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain), Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) and Sorin (Francis Guinan).

Fisher is glorious, mining both comedy and pathos from a character whose depths are often profoundly superficial.  Grush is perfectly cast as a tortured artist who strives for edginess with the rage of a petulant child who is certain that adults are trivial and adult artists are pandering hacks. In their scenes together, the two are incendiary, a mother and son whose see-sawing love/hate relationship will never find an even keel.

Kelly O’Sullivan’s Masha is equally indelible, a black-clad emo/Goth prototype capable of the sort of gasp-inducing cruelty borne of unbearable sorrow and frustration. In capturing the bitter aesthetic of a woman who knows her life is over at 20, O’Sullivan is also laugh-out-loud funny, blurring the line between tragedy and comedy with such finesse that they become impossible to tell apart. As Masha’s husband, Demetrios Troy continues establishing himself as one of the most fascinating young actors around, portraying the put-upon Medvedenko as the personification of disillusionment and impotent fury borne not of hatred but of love.

And as Nina, the radiant, innocent young woman who is as easily destroyed as the titular bird Konstantin slaughters, Heather Wood makes Chekhov’s overarching metaphor a devastating heart-breaker.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) shows his affection for his mother, Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), after a traumatic experience.

 

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REVIEW: A True History of the Johnstown Flood (Goodman Theatre)

Design team is all that’s left above water

 

johnstown-flood_001 

 
Goodman Theatre presents
 
A True History of the Johnstown Flood
 
by Rebecca Gilman
directed by
Robert Falls 
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 18th (more info | tickets)
 
reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Rebecca Gilman’s  latest play is titled A True History of the Johnstown Flood, but those hoping for any kind of insight into the tragedy will leave the Goodman Theatre’s production disappointed. As will those hoping to see a compelling story peopled with engaging characters. What A True History of the Johnstown Flood does offer is a condescending 2.5 hour lecture on the evils of Robber Baron capitalism backed by an award-worthy sound design and some amazing sets.

johnstown-flood_007 Speaking of which: The Goodman itself becomes an unintended, unavoidable and meta-theatrical punchline when one character opines with righteous indignation that some people go to the theater just to see the elaborate sets.  The line refers to theater-goers of the 19th century, but it  might as well refer to those who show up at the Goodman during the run of A True History of the Johnstown Flood.

Director Robert Falls might be working with paper dolls for all the authentic  emotion he gets from a cast trapped in a narrative that has all the authenticity of a Perils of Pauline episode.

Set in 1889, the piece contains many plays-within-the-play, as it follows the fate of the Baxter family acting troupe. Siblings Fanny (Heather Wood, doing what she can with an underwritten ingenue), James (Stephen Louis Grush, consistently out-acted by his wig) and Richard (Cliff Chamberlain, stuck in a character whose emotional journey peaks with an excruciating case of  explosive diarrhea) represent the working poor as they perform for a pittance at a posh resort located alongside a manmade lake high above working class Johnstown.

The Baxters perform in the style of the time – hackneyed plots delivered with stilted, exaggerated gestures and plumy, overripe line delivery. It is not a good sign when it becomes impossible to differentiate between the Baxter’s melodramas and Gilman’s drama.  But Gilman’s narrative is that hollow and histrionic and under Falls’ direction, that histrionically performed.

Take (please) a scene wherein Clara Barton arrives in Johnstown and encounters Richard in the throes of what was once called the bloody flux. The dialogue is as stiff as a cadaver as Clara announces who she is and explains that she is with the Red Cross, and that the Johnstown Flood is the first  Natural Disaster the Red Cross has responded to since the Civil War was a war and not a Natural Disaster.  It’s like watching the Hall of Presidents exhibit at Disneyland: Soulless, superficial and self-consciously educational.

johnstown-flood_012The 90-minute first act is a long, slow slog of exposition and declamation, as the Baxter siblings discuss their “museum worthy sets” and perform for the swells. James, who has been to Europe and ostensibly seen a few Ibsen plays, augments his performing career by writing bad plays about the unfair conditions of the proletariat. Cue the thick-as-river-bottom-sludge foreshadowing:  James runs into an ancient fisherman who explains the potential for flooding like some latter day Sophoclean messenger.

The worst instance of  this automaton-school-of-(over)acting comes toward the close of the 90-minute first act, in what should be a breathtakingly suspenseful  climax as the Baxters – and their newfound patron, the wealthy Andrew Lippincott (Lucas Hall)  -  are holed up with their sets in a freight car as the storms rages outside. The huddled group learns of the approaching disaster via a series of telegrams, each one delivered by the same, increasingly het up fellow.

Instead of the all-but unbearable tension borne of the knowledge that a disaster is imminent and one might be breathing one’s last, the scene is all fussy, unintended comedy. By the time the water arrived (with a blackout and Richard Woodbury’s extraordinary sound design), we found ourselves so distracted by the telegram man’s superpowers (Was the telegram office right next door to the Baxter’s train car? How was he getting back and forth so fast? Could he fly?)  the flood itself seemed almost beside the point.

Sound designer Woodbury provides the sole harrowing moment in the piece, capturing the crashing din of 20 million tons of water – and the countless trees, homes, corpses, animals and debris caught within its violent roil – with an apocalyptic sonic roar so fearsome it evokes the fury of the Old Testament’s God. It’s horrifying, and it is the sole moment in the play that effectively evokes the nightmarish event that is the Johnstown Flood.

Post-flood (and post intermission), the story dribbles into soggy inconsequence. People enter and exit looking for loved ones on a stage strangely bereft of corpses given the elaborate nature of the Goodman’s production values elsewhere in the drama. The flood killed over 2,000 people, but for all its big-budget resources, the Goodman has only three or four dead bodies on stage in a scene that supposedly shows desperate survivors searching for their loved ones amid hundreds of fatalities.

johnstown-flood_009 johnstown-flood_010
johnstown-flood_011 johnstown-flood_013

Later comes a  potentially intriguing exchange as Lippincott discusses the flood with an official from the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club – the organization responsible for building Lake Conemaugh as a playground for the rich, and thereby endangering the lives of the working class folk downstream. But the Club man disappears after that single conversation.  Instead of the class conflict the scene seems to portend, Gilman gives us only James’ hackneyed attempts at social justice via melodrama, with the Baxters beating their breasts and wailing unto the skies with all the verisimilitude of canned hams.

In the end, the Baxters inexplicably forsake their careers in the theater. A new cast is seen rehearsing James’ play on Broadway while James and Fanny are seemingly far away in a domestic life that doesn’t involve their “museum quality sets.”  Their abrupt retirement would be perplexing, if the story had given audiences any reason to care. But there is no such reason, unless, of course, you want to know what became of all that marvelous scenery.

 
Rating: ★½
 

johnstown-flood_002

 

        

Updates: Steppenwolf’s “Superior Donuts” on Broadway

Tracy Letts’ most recent play, Superior Donuts, just opened on Broadway with the same Steppenwolf cast.  After receiving moderate to warm reviews here in Chicago, the NYC reviews so far appear mixed.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

 

The NY Post gives Superior Donuts a very positive review – 3.5 stars:

After Superior Donuts, Tracy Letts‘ follow-up to August: Osage County, premiered in Chicago last year, the play was deemed entertaining but minor.

Either this Steppenwolf production has been drastically reworked on its way to New York, or we live in a cynical world where a show as tender and honest, as beautifully written, acted and directed as this one can be blithely dismissed.

 

 

While the New York Times produces a review that is so-so:

Mr. Letts has mothballed his angst and tossed the deadly weapons in the back drawer. Superior Donuts, a gentle comedy that unfolds like an extended episode of a 1970s sitcom, is a warm bath of a play that will leave Broadway audiences with satisfied smiles rather than rattled nerves.

Superior Donuts may be familiar and unchallenging, but it’s also comfortable — and no, there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

Below, Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones interviews playwright Tracy Letts (“August: Osage County“) and lead actor Michael McKean (“Laverne and Shirley“, “Saturday Night Live“, “This is Spinal Tap“) about Superior Donuts, Letts’ new play premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. Letts’ 2007 play August: Osage County won the Pultizer Prize and Tony Award in 2008.

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Review: Steppenwolf’s 5th-Annual First Look Repertory of New Works

You Have Never Seen These Before

For the past five years, Steppenwolf’s First Look Repertory of New Work has given Chicago audiences the unique opportunity to view works in progress for the very first time in the intimate setting of Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater. All three plays in this year’s First Look series are still in development, and are likely to undergo changes before being produced again.

09 First Look PlaywrightsFirst Look Playwrights: (left to right) Ensemble member Eric Simonson with Laura Jacqmin and Laura EasonPhoto by Elizabeth Fraiberg. 


Honest

Written and Directed by Eric Simonson
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Honest, written and directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Eric Simonson, is the tragic story of best-selling memoirist Guy (Erik Hellman), a man whose past is much stranger than his novel’s fiction. When the factuality of his memoir is challenged by a reporter (Martin McClendon), a Mametian game of deception and blackmail unfolds, with both men’s futures hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, Guy’s past is revealed in a series of flashbacks chronicling the events that shaped the pathological liar seen at the start of the show.

The actors are faced with the unenviable task of bringing to life Simonson’s very dark world, and they due so magnificently. Hellman specifically must play the same character in four different time periods with four extremely different circumstances, and he manages to capture the fear and pain of a tormented soul with the charisma of a man who has been lying and getting away with it for years. Kelly O’Sullivan is heartbreaking as Guy’s cousin Casey, and when the two actors share the stage together the production truly shines.

Where the play falters a bit is in the opening and closing scenes between Guy and Martin, the reporter. Martin seems overly eager to share personal information with a complete stranger, and while it can be justified as forward movement for the plot, it simply did not ring true to the general conduct between an interviewer and his subject. Beyond that quibble, Honest is an engrossing examination of one man’s attempt to hide from his past, and the cruel truth that no matter where he goes, it always finds him.

Rating: «««

 



Sex with Strangers

Written by Laura Eason
Directed by Jessica Thebus
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Thirty-something struggling writer Olivia’s (Amy J. Carle) world is turned upside down when she finds herself romantically involved with self-proclaimed asshole blogger Ethan Strange (Stephen Louis Grush) in Sex With Strangers, the standout production of this year’s First Look series. Laura Eason’s script seamlessly balances romantic comedy with conflict as Olivia and Ethan’s honeymoon affair begins to feel the pressure of his very public sexual past, and director Jessica Thebus, along with an extremely gifted cast and creative team, has created a production that could easily be transferred to any theater as is.

From the first kiss to the last betrayal, Carle and Grush have the kind of chemistry that makes stage magic. Carle has proven herself an actress of immense depth and talent in the past, but her portrayal of Olivia is one of the most fully realized characters to grace the Chicago stage this season. Her relationship to Ethan is completely believable, in large part due to her male costar’s wonderfully charming characterization.

The two actors handle the rapid-fire banter of Laura Eason’s script with ease, further cementing the realism of the play, and it is real. Sex With Strangers is one of the most honest portraits of love in a world where privacy barely exists and sex is just another bodily function, and it is a must see for Chicago audiences.

Rating: ««««

 



Ski Dubai

Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Lisa Portes
Thru August 9 (buy tickets)
Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Rachel (Hillary Clemons) is an Environmental Friendliness Consultant relocated to Dubai with the daunting task of helping her company’s man-made island achieve "green" certification in Ski Dubai by Laura Jacqmin. Still reeling from a construction accident that left her New York City apartment on the sidewalk 15 stories below, Rachel must juggle living with randy roommate/colleague Perrin (Cliff Chamberlain), his insane wife Amanda (Sadieh Rifai), and a slew of other quirky characters while trying to establish a home for herself in a foreign world.

Clemons does an admirable job balancing Rachel’s naïveté with her growing apathy for not only the project to which she was assigned, but the modern ideology of "new is better than authentic," but the trauma of losing her New York home never seems as bad as she makes it out to be. The supporting actors seem to have been directed to take their characters so over the top that they lose dimension, and the actors get lost in showing the audience how wild they are without finding the motivation behind the action. Rifai stands out as Amanda, infusing her character with genuine anger at a world that never stops letting her down, and Jennifer Coombs is absolutely hilarious as the tactless Doctor that hates Dubai and everyone in it.

Jacqmin’s script struggles to find a balance between cartoonish hijinx and political commentary, and the end result is two-dimensional characters that never seem to have a voice of their own. Of the three plays, Ski Dubai is the one that could use the most retooling before being produced again, but when it is funny, like when Coombs traverses the space wearing invisible skis, it is hilarious.

Rating: ««

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Review: “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” (Northlight)

Inishmore-art-banner

Leave it to Martin McDonagh to find the humor in terrorism.

The Irish playwright is infamous for the intense violence and large quantity of blood in his plays. In The Lieutenant of Inishmore he satirizes the constantly splintering Irish terrorist groups that infested Ireland in the 20th Century. The current production at Northlight Theatre exploits the gruesome spectacle of the play, splashing the stage with blood, brains, and plenty of other body parts.

inishmore1 The play evokes both Quentin Tarantino and John M. Synge. McDonagh exposes the Ireland tourists aren’t familiar with, steeped in ancient traditions and convulsed by political conflict. The lieutenant of Inishmore is Padraic (Cliff Chamberlain), a crazed Irish terrorist considered too bloodthirsty for the IRA. The play begins when the men responsible for cat-sitting Padraic’s furry friend find Wee Thomas squashed on the side of the road. While those with a dead cat on their hands try to figure out how to break the news, other “patriots” enter Inishmore, and the body count slowly increases.

McDonagh had a hard time finding someone to produce the play originally; many theatres found it too controversial. It has become one of his most successful plays to date, and director BJ Jones (who has also directed McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara and The Cripple of Innishmaan) nails the Chicago premier of the dark comedy. The success of this production would not be possible, however, without special effects designer Steve Tolin, brought in from Pittsburgh. He presents a myriad of different ways to make blood spray and spurt from the actor’s bodies; it’s not often that the gore of a slasher flick is recreated on-stage.

inishmore2 Cliff Chamberlain is excellent as the bloodthirsty Padraic, balancing the craziness of a killer with the tenderness of man who loves his cats. Kelly O’Sullivan plays well against Chamberlain as Mairead, a 16-year-old fan-girl of Padraic and accurate shot with an air rifle. The funniest two of the show, though, is the duo stuck with the dead cat, the long-haired Davey (Jamie Abelson) and Padraic’s father, Donny (Matt DeCaro). The pair takes awhile to connect, but once they find it they are hilarious. John Judd, Andy Luther, and Keith Gallagher are menacing as a trio of Irish hitmen looking for Padraic. By the second act, the whole ensemble clicks together and the outcome is bloody and wickedly funny.

Jones and his team do a very precise job in finding the inherent comedy in the violence. The amount of bloodshed in the play is ridiculous, and the characters’ reasoning behind it is bizarre. With the help of Tolin and fight choreographer Nick Sandys, Jones arranges scenes that show the folly of extremist violence. And by committing to the dangerous reality the script presents, the cast can be comical while making the audience believe that they have real guns with real bullets.

McDonagh wrote the play in response to some very non-comical real events. In February, 1993, an English gas company was bombed, killing and wounding soldiers, civilians, and several children. As Americans, we have plenty of experience with the horrors of terrorism. By pointing out the ridiculousness of extremist beliefs, the play is incredibly relevant to our 21st Century world. And even though “the Troubles” in Ireland have calmed down since the 1990’s, terrorism is still alive there. In March, IRA dissidents assassinated several English soldiers near Belfast as they went to get pizza. The events depicted in Lieutenant of Inishmore are not as outlandish as they might seem at first glance.

Rating: «««½

Cast and artistic team rosters, including bios, can be found after the fold.

To see videos of this production, click here.

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Review – “Dolly West’s Kitchen” at TimeLine Theatre

Dolly West Kitchen eggProduction: Dolly West’s Kitchen
Producers: TimeLine Theatre (map)
Review: It’s often said that the heart of every home is the kitchen.  In Dolly West’s kitchen however, this is an understatement – the kitchen comes to an emotional full boil during the extent of this adventursome and often-hillarious work.  The play, taking place in war-time Ireland, revolves around the three West-family women: matriarch Rima, free-spirited Dolly and tightly-wound Esther.  Though all three women appear strong, much of their choices and present-day predicaments stem from theif womanizing father, who has long ago left the family (leaving Dolly to escape to Italy where she ends up running a restaurant, only returning to Ireland when Mussolini comes to full power; Esther marrying a weak but reliable Ned Horgan, who Esther does not love, but chooses because she knows he will never leave her). Soon Dolly West’s kitchen comes to life with the appearance of three mail visitors – Dolly’s bisexual ex-boyfriend Alec Redding, and two American soldiers – the quiet Jamie O’Brien, and his blatantly gay cousin Joshua Rollins. 

Playwright Frank McGuinness creates wide swathes of lyrical dialogue, interspersed with some sexually-charged outbursts, as Dolly West’s Kitchen lays out for us the complex issues occuring in war-time Ireland, juxtaposed with issues of sexual identity and the results of a dysfunctional family history.  

Strengths: This show is a perfect example of the powerful ensemble acting that Chicago is known for.  The womens’ performances are flawless, especially the women on the extremes: the aged, cantankerous matriarch Rima West (played by the mesmerizing Kathleen Ruhl), and the spunky, lower-class teenage maid Anna Owens (portrayed by the energetic Sara Hoyer).  Accompanying these two are the actresses playing the West sisters, Kat McDonnell and Danica Ivancevic, (these two who have shared their impressive talents with Chicago in recent productions  – Kat McDonnell in The Sparrow; Danica Ivancevic in Faith Healer).  The set is brilliant – a cozy kitchen which thrusts out diagonally into the audience, a subtle garden on one side of the kitchen and an overturned boat near the shore on the other side of the kitchen. Director Kimberly Senior should be commended for harnessing all of this talent into one eloquent voice.   

Weaknesses: Even a strong cast and ingenious set can’t totally rescue the weaknesses of the script. For example, we are immediately asked to accept that a World War II era Irish family administers full acceptance of the several gay characters in the play – including Dolly’s brother, Dolly’s ex-lover (actually presented as being bisexual) and an American soldier who consequently becomes the brother’s lover.  Oddly, then, when looking at the historical display in the lobby during intermission, we are told that homosexuality was abhorred in Ireland at the time.  Furthermore, the play’s final scenes occur once the war is over, and we witness the psychologically debilitating effect the war has had on all of the men (including the two Americans who, one would think, would have gone home after the war rather than back to Dolly’s kitchen).  Considering how complex such issues of distress caused by seeing the ugliness of war, the playwright chooses to end the play with several Hallmark-moments as each soldier miraculously gains their samity, and life is beautiful once more.      

Aside: Altough this specific play didn’t work for me, I have always enjoyed TimeLine’s exemplary productions.  Their plays reliably present a historic viewpoint, including the creation of study guides and lobby displays.  In a whacky way, I like to think of TimeLine as a theatrical version of “School House Rock” – where as a child I was greatly entertained by these Saturday-morning cartoons, while coercively learning how a bill gets passed in Congress, the anatomy of a conjunction, and when to use an exclamation point !! 

Summary: Though Dolly West’s Kitchen is impeccably performed, looks great and has a plethora of hilarious lines, the play sabotages itself through a confusing depiction of 1940’s gay acceptance as well as a Hallmark-esque view of complex catastophes which are conveniently mended in the end. 

Rating: ««½

Personnel and Show Information

Playwright: Frank McGuinness
Director: Kimberly Senior
Sets: Brian Sidney Bembridge
Lights: Charles Cooper
Costumes: Christine Conley
Sound Design: Tamara Roberts
Props: Galen Pejeau
Stage Manage: Ana Espinosa
Dialect Coach: Eva Breneman
Featuring: Cliff Chamberlain (Alec)
Aaron Golden (Jamie)
Sara Hoyer (Anna)
Danica Ivancevic (Esther)
Kat McDonnell (Dolly)
Niall McGinty (Justin)
Mark Richard (Ned)
Joshua Rollins (Marco)
Kathleen Ruhl (Rima)
Location: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
Dates: Through March 22, 2008
Show Times: Wednesday-Thursday 7:30pm, Friday 8pm, Saturday 4 and 8pm, Sunday 2pm.