Review: A Lesson Before Dying (Lincoln Square Theatre)

  
  

Stark simplicity amplifies Lincoln Squares’ Lesson

  
  

David Lawrence Hamilton and Barth Bennett (Jefferson) in Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

  
Lincoln Square Theatre presents
   
   
A Lesson Before Dying
   
Written by Romulus Linney
Directed by Kristina Schramm
at Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

To call Lincoln Square Theatre’s A Lesson Before Dying rudimentary would be the understatement of the year. The production values of the set design by director Kristina Schramm may be low, its look stark and rough around the edges. That, however, works in the production’s favor at critical moments—evoking dark poetry about a young black man sentenced to die in the electric chair for a crime he did not commit. The meat and potatoes of Lincoln Square’s offering lies in the excellent characterizations of its little known cast, some of whom make their Chicago debut David Lawrence and Elana Elyce in Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying"with this production. Hence, their cumulative efforts can be considered a small diamond gleaming in an unexpected spot. Go to witness the resilient, earthy, intelligent and vital performances that fill the church basement space Lincoln Square Theatre calls home.

Set in the pre-Civil Rights Era South, Miss Emma (vividly played by Mary Helena) wants the local schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (David Lawrence Hamilton) to intervene with her grandson Jefferson (Barth Bennett), who has just been sentenced to death for the murder of a white grocery store owner. At one point in his trial, Jefferson’s lawyer had argued that one might as well execute a hog as execute his client—from that point Jefferson only thinks of himself as a hog. Miss Emma hopes that the schoolteacher can speak to Jefferson and raise him up to believe in himself again as a man, so that he can die with dignity.

But Wiggins himself is a man burnt out on the futility of teaching in the rural South. The shack that stands for the schoolhouse he teaches in doesn’t have enough chalk to last through the year. His students spend more time playing with bugs than reading the old, used and worn out textbooks donated to them from white schools. His perspective on the impact he can make under such conditions has degenerated to impotent and sour cynicism. “Vivian, I’m dead here,” he tells his girlfriend, also a schoolteacher. But Vivian Baptiste (in a fresh and driven performance by Elana Elyce) pushes Wiggins to help Jefferson. Due to going through a divorce herself, Vivian cannot be sure of Wiggins, if he turns out to be someone people can’t depend upon—“Decent men back out. Decent men give up. Decent men change the rules.”

     
A scene from Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney A scene from Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

The power of Wiggin’s story lies in the pressures upon him to be more than what he is – which he may be swayed by, but never really yields to. Romulus Linney’s adaptation of the novel by Earnest J. Gaines preserves Wiggins as a man filled with doubts, able to use only the most meager pedagogical tools at his disposal to draw Jefferson out. Vivian seems, at times, to want him to be a superman. The Rev. Ambrose (resonantly played by Rudolf D. Munro, III) definitely dislikes Wiggins’ secular leanings dominating Jefferson’s recovery and wishes there would be more God-talk involved in his redemption. But it’s the halting and uncertain nature of the schoolteacher’s mentality that allows him to be influenced by the person who matters most—the condemned man himself.

At the beginning, both Hamilton and Bennett’s play their characters too tight and shut down to allow for much emotional play. But both actors blossom into their roles organically—evincing profound, confrontational and revelatory moments the closer Jefferson comes to his day of execution. Flanked by the manipulative Sheriff Guidry (Ed Schultz) and the sympathetic Deputy Paul Bonin (Jereme Rhodes), Jefferson’s ability to recover himself and face his undeserved death becomes more about the transformation of a community than just his personal ordeal. Lincoln Square Theatre renders a poignant and profound drama on the value of human life that is more than worth the effort to seek it out.

     
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The cast of Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

Dates/Times: Continues thru June 11, with performances Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm.

Tickets: $20 ($12 students & seniors)
Purchase:
credit card via Brown Paper Tickets; cash and check at door;
Reservations:
773-275-7930; Location: 4754 N. Leavitt St. Chicago (map)

  
  

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Review: Apocalypso (Point of Contention Theatre)

Fractured tales of Armageddon

 

Apocalypso - Point of Contention Theatre

   
Point of Contention Theatre presents
   
Apocalyso
   
Written by William Donnelly
Directed by
Timothy Bambara
at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through October 2nd   |  tickets: $10-$15   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

It must be getting close to another pivotal prediction time in the history of humankind. Apocalypso is rife with hints of New Age philosophy, 20-something aimlessness, and Generation X hitting the wall. Yes, 2012 looms and there is hair in the Cocoa Puffs. I would not quite call this play by William Donnelly a comedy as it is billed. There are some funny lines but this is more of a post-millennial musing of the Absurd.

The Point of Contention Theatre Company is known for breakneck dialogue, seamless direction, and quirky expressionistic takes on reality. I have to say that Apocalypso doesn’t quite nail the mark as well as past works like The Wonder (our review ★★★½) or Vanishing Points. (our review ★★★)

To be clear, there are some fine performances in this play, but the action and the narrative don’t flow that well. Apocalypso is set during the holiday season between Christmas and New Years’ Eve in small town America. We are introduced to a washed up school janitor named Gus, getting hammered with a newly divorced Boone. Mike Rice and Zach Livingston play the roles respectively. They make fine work of portraying guys on a cheap beer bender in the Upper Peninsula. Gus stokes his drinking buddy with misogynistic remarks and manly feats of dog care while stealing none too bright Boone’s wallet. Catherina Kusch as Sherry the bartender is a standout. Kusch plays the part of a woman who accepts anything rather than being alone with a weary dignity and touch of fierceness. In the midst of the holiday binge, a derelict-looking woman appears, speaks of a message, then disappears.

Boone (Livingston) wakes up in the apartment of his friend Walt, played by Jared Nell. Mr. Livingston has a fine grasp of the broad comedy strokes of the sofa-surfing Boone who – wearing only boots, underwear and a torn bathrobe – is a site. Calling Oscar Madison!  Mr. Nell’s Walt is the unfortunate consumer of the hirsute breakfast cereal. Walt appears to be a pushover and if it quacks like a duck….you know the rest.

Into this fracas is thrown the characters of Boone’s manipulative ex-wife Gin (Heather Brodie), her ever accommodating sister Cal (Megan E. Brown), and her secretive husband Dwight, played by Tony Kaehny. I was left wondering how this could be called a comedy at all after watching the painful scene between the sisters Gin and Cal.

Gin cannot let go of Boone and calls him at ridiculous hours to request random objects like CD’s or small appliances. The sight of Walt sitting in a car holding a circa-70’s blender should have elicited a bigger laugh in my opinion. The humor was tempered by the looming angst that hangs in every scene of Apocalypso.  I should want to care about these characters but I cannot. They are so self-involved and oblivious to the meaning behind all of their existential spouting that I was hoping for an Armageddon full of endless Calypso dancing. In fact, the only character that brought levity and honesty to the play was Dora, played by Jennifer Betancourt. She appears like a vision to each character, speaking her message with evangelical zeal. Betancourt is wonderful as the possibly delusional Dora. She claims to be from the Council of Fate and Determination, sent to tell the world of the end times. Dora is darkly funny, as we all have seen someone like her on the train or a downtown street corner preaching in a filthy parka. The humor is this: perhaps they are right. They grasp onto just enough kernels of truth to make one wonder ‘what if?’ and then shake it off, inferring insanity on the messenger.

We discover that Dora is the sister of Walt and she warns him about the end of the world and the Cocoa Puffs. Walt explains that Dora is off of her meds and thought that she was indeed the Lamb of God as a child. Dora manages to inject honesty into these character’s lives by calling things as they are in the midst of listening to their mewling half steps toward honesty.

These people do not treat each other well, and normally that works as a dramatic device to push the action forward. In Apocalypso, the human cruelty just stalls the flow of the play. The marriage of Cal and Dwight is played like a soap opera with a plot of philandering and regret. By the time Cal is awakened by Dora and calls Dwight on his BS the only humor is found in an expletive and a demand for tea.

I have to say that I found Donnelly’s dialogue and theme oddly reminiscent of the novel “Nine Kinds of Naked” by Tony Vigorito. There is talk of tornadoes, allusions to synchronicity, and being reborn naked after the Rapture. Perhaps it is homage; perhaps it is a coincidence that I will allow as synchronicity.

The production’s performances are quite good. It is a disappointment, then, that the direction seems to pace the scenes in a fractured manner. Sometimes comedy is serious and sometimes it calls for broad strokes to elicit a knowing chuckle. This is a bit too serious where the material could be mined for more self-recognition. There should be at least a conga line.

   
  
Rating: ★★½
  
    

 Apocalypso runs through October 2nd at the Boho Theatre @ Heartland Studio. Times are Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Contact www.pointofcontention.org for more information and tickets.

     
     

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REVIEW: Vanishing Points (Point of Contention Theatre)

A bleak, melancholic and beautiful vanishing point

VPPress1

Point of Contention Theatre presents:

Vanishing Points

 

by Martin Jones
directed by Dan Foss
at Boho Theatre, 7016 N Glenwood
through March 20th  (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

When I entered the Boho Theatre to see Vanishing Points, there was music playing. It was the music of my generation. I recalled a world of wildly colorful polyester and music that exploded the mold of it’s own origins. Unaware, I was being drawn into the world of a normal family in Nebraska 1972 before the lights went down.

Point of Contention’s production of Vanishing Points by Martin Jones is a bracing and sometimes nightmarish ride through the psyche of those that survive horrific and seemingly meaningless violence. It is based on the true story of the Peak family of Grand Island, Nebraska of whom three members were murdered in their home before going to church. For anyone who has experienced the sudden loss of a family member, there are few ways to articulate what is left behind. That is what falls to the character of Beth played by Stacie Hauenstein. She is the prodigal daughter who returns from college with a long- haired boyfriend and no concrete plans. Her family wastes no time in expressing their disappointment.

This production is brilliant in the use of minimalism. The usual cyc wall backdrop is literally framed with impressionistic and stark projections hanging center stage. These are Beth’s memories as well as her present state of mind frozen in time and invaded by ghosts. The only other props are chairs and a stair railing. It is left to the cast to project the sense of everyday life and morals of the midwestern family and what happens when it is left behind.

Rick Levine and Annie Slivinski play the parents as salt of the earth, church- going folks. Their children say ‘yes sir’ and have toed the line until Beth comes home with Lenny played by Christopher Sanderson. Victoria Bucknell plays the role of kid sister Barbara with bratty perfection. This family has followed the rules and had full expectations of the American dream with a plant nursery business. The greenhouse is the rare solace in the drought stricken town for Beth. The last time she sees her father is at the greenhouse on what seems an ordinary day. The family leaves for church and she goes with Lenny on the back of his motorcycle for a trip down memory lane. The memories become endless and something from which Beth cannot escape.

VPPress2

Actors Hauenstein and Sanderson play off of each other well. It is especially tense in the New York scene when Lenny grows tired of being supportive. His anger and weariness with Beth’s mourning is shocking and very effective. Ms. Hauenstein manages to pull off a midwestern stoicism without falling into the damsel in distress stereotype. Hers is a performance with a perfect balance of paranoia, fear, and dreams fraught with despair.

Kudos to Ms. Slivinski for her dual role as Beth’s mother Carolyn and Peg who runs an artists colony in the mountains. Slivinski is haunting as the ghost of the mother still sounding off in disappointment from beyond the grave. The same phrases repeat over and over but with subtly increasing intensity. Although there is no special effects makeup, the image of a woman with a bullet wound in her face is made clear as Carolyn menaces Beth long after the tragedy.

Victoria Bucknell provides much needed comic relief – also in a dual role as little sister Barbara and as hippie con artist Vicki. Her portrayal of Vicki was spot on and hilarious. Once again, very few props other than a folding chair but there is patchouli and chicanery quite ably inferred for those who can remember the early 70’s.

Morgan Manasa plays the role of the other surviving sister Fran who lives in Evanston with her husband and son. Somehow her father expected her to go away and ‘live her own life’. When she returns for the funeral, she is more detached and pulled by her own unhappy circumstances. There is no home to return to in Nebraska and like so many women, she has married her father in that husband Gary (Mark E. Penzien), lays guilt on her for pursuing something other than home and hearth. Ms. Manasa plays the role of Fran with a dark sadness and admirable restraint. (I have seen her in more manic comic roles-most notably “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret” also produced by Point of Contention. This role was a jarring contrast, which she played with deftness and subtlety.) She and Mr. Penzien are heartbreaking as they portray a couple whose casualties stem as much from lost dreams as the tragedies back home.

Mr. Sanderson plays a seriocomic dual role as Lenny and as Caz the mountain man who wrangles snakes. His casual approach to violence echoed what may have happened to her family – much more could have been made of this character’s connection with the killer in Beth’s imagination. . What is called shocking by the media and people ensconced in normalcy is everyday stuff to those of a more atavistic nature.

A minus for the direction is that the dual role of Rick Levine as father Walter and Uncle Cliff is too much of a throwaway. Mr. Levine is good as the father but that is undercut by an almost identical performance as Cliff. It is made obvious that their lives followed an expectation of conformity however; the characters should have been more delineated.

This is difficult and tense material that Chicago theatre veteran Dan Foss has chosen to adroitly direct. The seamless action is wonderfully enhanced by the stark musical score by Peter Andriadis, with echoes of Phillip Glass if he had scored for Ingmar Bergman. Applause goes to costumer Erica Hohn who dressed the characters in wonderfully authentic period clothes. The bright colors and whimsical patterns makes the tragedy of the Peak family hit close to home. It’s as if the audience is looking at an old photo album of memories frozen in time – hopeful, but with a touch of rebellion.

As the play ended, I had a knot in my stomach. And when the lights came up, as the soundtrack of my childhood was playing on the speakers again, the knot in my stomach tightened even more, a combination of nostalgia and loss.

Vanishing Points is a very effective reminder of how people can be either consumed or numbed by tragedy. Was it really a shock that this seemingly random crime happened? Have we become inured to violence and to the dark side of humanity? Vanishing Points is a haunting remembrance of the connection that we all share.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

“Vanishing Points” runs through March 20th at the Boho Theatre @ Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood. Tickets can be purchased through BrownPaperTickets.com or by calling 312-326-3631.