Review: Festen (Steep Theatre)

  
  

A party of full earth-shattering disclosure

  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

   

Steep Theatre presents

  

Festen

   
Dramatization by David Eldridge
Based on Dogme film/play
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A young melancholy Danish man who is the eldest son and heir to his father’s fortune becomes racked with grief after the drowning suicide of the closest female companion in his life. His sanity is in question. The patriarch of this empire is being celebrated while the son, who knows of a terrible family secret, plots revenge against this man who has destroyed his and his family’s life. Oh, and there’s a ghost. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking: Festen, a dramatic adaptation of a film from the Dogme series, you’d be correct. Any connection to that older play about a Danish prince is purely coincidental—and what a fascinating layer of coincidence it is. Director Jonathan Berry’s production of the Midwest premiere of this London hit is compelling from start to finish. Steep and artistic director Peter Moore have given Chicago audiences what’s sure to be a highlight of the season by bringing this hauntingly human piece to their intimate storefront space.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.While the resemblance to Hamlet is resonant (as Berry himself notes) the play takes its cue from several resources. “Festen” was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, a style of no-frills filmmaking that focuses on stripping away production elements and focusing on verisimilitude in acting, story and mise-en-scène. The setting is the 60th birthday party for Helge (a difficult role mastered by Norm Woodel), the patriarch of an enterprise where family, business and home become entangled. The arrival of the family members is somewhat reminiscent of those murder mysteries where the characters all arrive, and are introduced, each with their own eccentricities. The audience becomes familiar with them in a light-hearted fashion. However, something is quickly off kilter here as Helge’s son Michael (Michael Salinas) begins a profanity laden tirade against one of the servants, Lars (Alex Gillmor) while treating his wife (Sasha Gioppo) like a slave, all in front of his young daughter (Julia Baker).

Some of the other party guests include Helge’s remaining children Christian (Kevin Stark) and Helene (Julia Siple), Helge’s brother Poul (Pete Esposito), his father (Toby Nicholson), and wife Else (Melissa Riemer).This family, on the surface, is more of a well oiled corporation as a whole. When horrid accusations are made by Christian, they are at first mere chinks in the empire that Helge has built. Those more blindly loyal to Helge, like Poul and his personal manager Helmut (James Allen), remain unfazed and continue with routine artificial celebration. All the while, it is the servants on this estate who are clearly running the show. They act as the silent all-knowing purveyors of justice who can completely throw the chain of events off course by simply hiding a set of car keys or a reluctance to pour a glass of port.

To really delve into what’s at stake for the characters in this play would be to divulge certain revelations that you, as audience member, should avoid knowing beforehand if at all possible. The audience response was silent, yet palpable and electric on the night I attended. One of the more fascinating scenes of the evening involves a perfect amalgamation of direction, acting and design in which three separate interactions occur simultaneously in the same area of the stage. A husband and wife make violent love against a wall while a woman reads her sister’s suicide note while another man refuses sexual advances and contemplates his own contempt. All of these moments happen within feet from each other in a choreographed response and obliviousness of the others.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.There is not a weak link in this ensemble. It is cast with precision and great care for each of these characters. It will be a crime if the Jeff committee doesn’t remember this ensemble come next year. Kevin Stark leads the cast with his perfect portrayal of repression and redemption. Reimer’s final line in the play is delivered with such calculated casualty that it seems to lift a spell off this wounded family. I could go through why each of these actors should receive recognition, but that’s not quite what this play is about. This is truly about actors providing a service to their audience and to the story. No one actor ever goes too far with the drama or heaviness of the situation, but rather respects these people and story to the fullest extent.

Berry adds the perfect amount of theatricality to grip the audience viscerally and emotionally. His attention to the rituals of this world and their subsequent collapse is telling and authentic. Christopher Kriz’s sound design provides a driving emotional soundscape that encompasses a vast spectrum proving to be ghostly, elegant, foreboding, and yet hopeful. Sarah Hughey’s lighting design creates magnificent shadow effects as well as separates areas of this small space to help convey the story ever that much clearer. The minimalism of Dan Stratton’s clean Scandinavian set design echoes Ibsen and Bergman. The white sterile ornate walls and furniture proves to be disturbing in both an ethereal manner as well as disgusting as a reflection of certain revelations. Prop designer Sarah Burnham’s glassware and table settings play a vital role as they are surgically set in place. Janice Pytel’s costume design is at its best in the contrast between the color in the final scene and the formal coldness in the rest of the production.

Festen is a sophisticated journey of both the emotional and the psychological. It’s a rare piece of theatre that gives the audience a physical reaction to events. There is a moment in the final scene where Michael’s daughter sits on one of the character’s laps. She simply wants a storybook read to her. Due to common knowledge, everyone in the audience shared a knee-jerk reaction along with Gioppo as her mother. In the end, the audience has witnessed first-hand the revelations made and the life altering changes of these characters. I can only imagine what it must be like to see this play and have repressed similar horrific events that are referenced, and it’s very likely more than one seat will be filled with these individuals. While this is beyond heartbreaking, it is also doubtless that we all have hurtful occurrences big or small we’ve suppressed rather than forgotten or healed from. Festen shines a light on the courage of people who confront these battles, many within the private walls of their homes or minds.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

Steep Theatre’s production of Festen, by David Eldridge continues through June 11th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and $22 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased at www.steeptheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.

  
  

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Review: Precious Little (Rivendell Theatre Ensemble)

     
     

Rivendell explores the boundaries of communication

 
   

Marilyn Dodds Frank, Meighan Gerachis - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

   
Rivendell Theatre presents
  
Precious Little
  
Written by Madeleine George 
Directed by
Julieanne Ehre
at DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through April 2  | 
tickets: $15-$25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

If you’re going to present a play about language, you may as well cast Marilyn Dodds Frank. Among her high attributes—she has plenty, versatility and precision hover near the top—Frank lays claim to one of the most interesting voices in Chicago. That’s a dubious designation, I guess, but much of Madeleine George’s Precious Little is indebted to it. Whether she be dressed as a gorilla (abstractly, thank god) in a zoo or timidly counting numbers aloud as a frail, elderly woman in a recording booth, Frank’s tenor and masterful delivery lends authority and depth to her multiple characters and, consequently, to George’s mixed-bag of a play.

Marilyn Dodds Frank, Kathy Logelin, Meighan Gerachis - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little 007More or less a showcase for fine acting, the scope of Precious Little is limited, but focused: an 80-minute meditation on human communication’s shortcomings told through three interweaving narratives. A lesbian professor and linguistics researcher (Meighan Gerachis) struggles to cope with news that her artificially-inseminated child may suffer a mental disability upon delivery. Stressed with complications in her research and unable to find enough solace confiding in her graduate-assistant lover (Kathy Logelin), the professor looks toward unconventional alternatives for an emotional connection.

Gerachis plays the troubled teacher with a balanced sense of sympathy and fault. Having sex with her student, betraying the trust of her test subject’s daughter, and openly confessing that she’d be more willing to handle raising a child with a physical set-back instead of a mental retardation, Brodie isn’t the most admirable protagonist. Gerachis makes those flaws identifiable and human.

The burdens these women shoulder aren’t light—a career-risking affair, an ailing mother, the ethics of abortion—yet the stakes of director Julieanne Ehre’s play never simmer to a high boil.

But maybe they don’t need to. The drama is frequently dotted with intellectual musings and light humor, and the partial detachment allows complicated ideas about expression to appear more clearly. Then again, if we’re to empathize with a supposedly sane 40-something-year-old scientist who’s driven to the extremity of fantasizing romantically about a caged animal, it would help if there were more emotional gravity to cling to along the ride. Ehre’s program note suggests the “quest for definitive knowledge ultimately leads to an acceptance of ambiguity.” Really though, it’s willingness of Precious Little to settle for ambiguity that sells the plight of its characters a bit short. What we are given to ruminate, however, is worthwhile, said subtly and said sincerely.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little Meighan Gerachis, Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little
Meighan Gerachis, Kathy Logelin, Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little

Precious Little continues through April 2nd at the DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $15-$25, and can be purchased online or by calling 312-742-8497.

     
     

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REVIEW: Oleanna (American Theater Company)

 

ATC Takes Mamet to School

 

 

Oleanna - American Theater Company 1 Oleanna - American Theater Company 3
   
American Theater Company presents
  
Oleanna
  
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Rick Snyder
at ATC, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through October 24  | 
tickets: $35  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Watching the American Theater Company’s production of Oleanna, you get the sense that the young David Mamet must have been really pissed off by one of his professors. The two-person academic melee screams with anger towards the ivory tower. I bet Mamet must have known and hated someone like John, the pedantic teacher on the brink of tenure. Helmed by director Rick Snyder, ATC’s Oleanna sears and fumes, leaving the audience awe-struck after the chilling finale.

The incendiary play races along for three acts. Each one depicts Jon (the towering Darrell W. Cox) and Carol (the contrastingly petite Nicole Lowrance) clamor for control, the fight escalating exponentially with time. Carol, a meek student well aware of the price of college admission, seeks academic freedom and understanding, while Jon fights for his right to dispense knowledge as he sees fit. His entire livelihood is at stake; he is in the final throes of achieving tenure and purchasing a house, and complaining Carol could ruin everything. And as much as Oleanna is about a teacher and student, it is about a man and a woman.

Oleanna - American Theater Company 2Seen by some as misogynistic, the play taps into the lingering sexism that survived third-wave feminism. When read or played wrong, Carol can come off as a nagging, soul-sucking imp. But Lowrance nails it; her Carol isn’t bright, but she wants to learn and becomes demoralized and angry when her arrogant professor tears into her high opinion of secondary education. I always find myself siding with her—yeah, she becomes vicious and cocky by the end, but Jon’s like that from the beginning, and has probably been that way for his entire teaching career. At times, Carol feels like a character who doesn’t want to be in a Mamet play. She sputters and gropes for words, unlike most of his creations with razor-sharp vocabularies, Jon included. Her inarticulateness actually grounds the character, who is probably one of the best concoctions Mamet’s typewriter has conceived.

Cox creates a fascinating portrayal of Jon, a man who paints himself as a social revolutionary but actually plays strictly by the rules, however elitist or sexist they may be. Cox’s Jon is surprisingly unassuming, speaking in crackly, tenor tones. He’s pompous and long-winded, but it comes out of a place of insecurity. Worn down by the stress of the real estate deal, he seems at the end of his rope, especially as Carol tosses wrenches into his plans. Cox also adds a stitch of creepy social awkwardness. When he consoles Carol by caressing her back at the end of Act One, everyone in the house was squirming in their seats.

Together, Lowrance and Cox are dynamite. They squawk rhetoric at each other, grabbing for the reins of the relationship. Snyder’s staging navigates the text wonderfully and sculpts the tension. For example, the famous brutal assault in Act Three springs like a trap and knocks the audience’s wind out. As it turns out, John is actually a terrific teacher because Carol becomes just as power-hungry as him.

Although usually well-forged, a few aspects of the production were muddy. One major issue is that we never really know why Carol continues to visit Jon. We’re left wondering if she’s just wrathful or driven by something more powerful than mere revenge.

ATC placed Oleanna alongside Speed-the-Plow (our review ★★★) to form a combo platter entitled “The Mamet Repertory.” Placing both plays next to each oddly pulls out similar themes in each. However, I preferred the claws-out combat of Oleanna to Plow’s Hollywood cynicism. The ending of Oleanna is superb. The characters are shattered, but there is no resolution, no catharsis. When the lights go down, we’re left gasping for air.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

 

    

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REVIEW: Speed-the-Plow (American Theater Company)

Strong “Plow” ends in the slow-lane

 

Speed-the-Plow Mamet - American Theater Company 3

   
American Theater Company presents
   
Speed-the-Plow
  
Written by David Mamet
Directed by
Rick Snyder
at
ATC, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through October 24  |  tickets: $35  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Although I’ve never actually seen someone’s eyeballs turn into dollar signs, Lance Baker’s portrayal of Charlie Fox in ATC’s Speed-the-Plow comes pretty close. There’s plenty of greed in David Mamet’s 1988 play, which tears into the artist’s antithesis, the Hollywood producer. Rick Snyder’s production of this usually hilarious, occasionally stomach-churning look behind-the-scenes fires on all cylinders. While the weaker of the two parts that make up their Mamet Repertory, this Speed-the-Plow will definitely make you feel slimy by the end.

Bertolt Brecht once claimed that he wanted to write plays about everyday, yet crucial, aspects of society, such as grain prices. Although his style is pretty far from Brechtian, Mamet’s choice of subject matter is pretty similar to Bertolt. Pulitzer prize winning Glengarry Glen Ross isn’t about such oft-mined topics like love, death, or family – it’s about business. Speed-the-Plow stays in the same vein, pitting profits against artistic merit with several souls hanging in the balance.

The play centers on producer Bobby Gould (Darrell W. Cox), who wields the power to greenlight one project a year and needs to make his decision count. His friend and subordinate Charlie brings him a buddy flick with a big star attached, if they make the call within 24 hours. But then Karen (Nicole Lowrance, in a role originated by Madonna, no joke), a temp worker covering for Bobby’s secretary, catches his attention. In an attempt to impress her, he throws her a novel to read, something which he knows can’t translate into a blockbuster. However, the book changes her outlook on life, and she does what she can to change his mind.

Speed-the-Plow Mamet - American Theater Company 2Compared to Oleanna, the other talk-a-thon in American Theater’s David Mamet repertory (our review ★★★½), I find Speed-the-Plow hard to crack. For me, the cataclysmic last moments between John and Carol resonate so much deeper than the scheming of Bobby and Charlie. Speed-the-Plow is part cynical comedy, part morality tale, and part artist’s manifesto; there’s a lot to take in, especially when the dialogue moves faster than NASCAR. Also, the play may also be predicting the Apocalypse, but I’m never sure.

Maybe the best part of the whole “repertory” concept is watching Cox switch from John’s loose sweaters and glasses to Bobby’s slicked-back hair and gold chains. The man obviously has a lot of fun with Gould’s skeeziness. Sitting at the top, Gould has no friends, only people who want to get stuff from him. Cox makes this clear throughout the play, through both jokes and breakdowns. He’s helped by Baker, who is great at conniving. Baker bounces around like he’s had far too much coffee, or maybe not enough. Cox keeps right up with him. Lowrance’s Karen is strikingly different than Carol—she’s way more flirtatious and paints her fingernails, although both women have a mousey timidity about them. The text calls for Lowrance to slow down the pace after the lightning rounds between Gould and Fox, but here it’s a bit too much. The second act, which features mostly monologues from Karen as she tries to communicate the effect the novel has on her, drags considerably. There’re a lot of big words, very little movement, and it just gets hard to follow after awhile. The pacing would probably be perfect for most other plays, but for Mamet it feels like a piggyback ride on a sloth.

The production regains it’s ferocity in the last act, and one leaves the theatre feeling hollow inside. Yes, everyone is sad that art gets the shaft, but I felt more pity for Bobby, whom everyone has a fork stuck in. You can find out more about his fate in the one-act semi-sequel Mamet wrote, Bobby Gould in Hell.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 

 

Speed-the-Plow Mamet - American Theater Company

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Review: LATE: A Cowboy Song (Piven Theatre Workshop)

Prairie Home Pretension

 

Grimm and Noonan H II

 
Piven Theatre Workshop presents
   
LATE: A Cowboy Song
  
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by
Jessica Thebus
at
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through August 29   |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

After seeing LATE: A Cowboy Song, an early Sarah Ruhl piece put up by the Piven Theatre Workshop, I had to clarify the job of a theatre critic for myself. Do I factor in the context of a play in reference to a playwright’s oeuvre? Or do I judge a production solely based on what I see at that time and in that room?

Because as significant as Ruhl is to the stage (her list of recognitions and awards would make an Eagle Scout envious), I have never seen one of her plays. I have never seen In the Next Room (the vibrator play) or The Clean House or Dead Man’s Cell Phone (which premiered at Steppenwolf in 2008 – our review ★★★).  So it’s impossible for me to look at LATE through the lens of a Ruhl expert, appreciating the piece as an early, unpolished gem from a writer who would later consistently churn out financially-successful diamonds.

But I realized it is okay if I have no context because the enjoyment of a particular production shouldn’t be contingent upon something outside the theater. All that is needed to have a good experience should be there, contained within that small dark room. After all, at its core, drama is the art of storytelling, and thus the quality of a play depends on its coherency and its content.

That being said, LATE lacks both coherency and content. It is an understated and pretentious excursion that introduces us to unlikable, unrelatable characters who occupy a world that – even when taken metaphorically – makes no sense. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This is exactly why people don’t go see plays.”

The play concerns Mary (Polly Noonan, who also was the lead in Steppenwolf’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone), a fragile young woman who is in love with her childhood sweetheart Crick (Lawrence Grimm). Crick may be well meaning, but that doesn’t excuse him from being a selfish deadbeat who has no job and asks Mary to lend him $500.

One day, Mary runs into an old friend named Red (Kelli Simpkins), a butch cowgirl who occasionally sings plot-relevant songs stage right. When Mary and Crick wed, Mary escapes to Red frequently to share bowls of clear soup, ride horses and learn the way of the cowboy.

Soon, Mary becomes pregnant. She and Crick cannot agree on a name. He lobbies for Jill. She lobbies for Blue. They never agree, and so even after the baby is born, each uses the name of his or her own choosing. This may seem strange, but then again, the baby is strange. It is born intersexual, which means both sexes are represented at birth though the doctor declares the baby a girl.

There is more inter-relationship turmoil to be had, more woeful country songs to be sung and more old-fashioned cowboy wisdom to be dispensed. But, unfortunately, it never gels together.

Simpkins and Noonan H II

Ruhl often is unable to disguise her own voice as dialogue. Mary and Crick are simple, so simple that they may have been kicked in the head by a horse. But occasionally they meditate on things with irritating pretension. It’s false to the characters, and it’s a disconnect for the audience. It is what I call “island dialogue” because it sits out by itself, a mass of words separate from the rest of the play.

In addition, the extent of the play’s subtlety makes it confusing. I’m not sure what I was supposed to walk away thinking after seeing a love triangle of some sort, whether physical, emotional or metaphysical. Why two names for the baby? Why is Crick so fixated on art? I’m not asking to be spoon-fed answers. I’m just dubious that there are answers.

LATE represents the reunion of Noonan, director Jessica Thebus and Ruhl. Noonan plays Mary with extreme fragility and vulnerability, as if she could shatter at any moment. But she’s also emotionally schizophrenic, prone to creepy mood swings, which may be intentional but, at the same time, off-putting.

Simpkins’ portrayal of Red is the best part of the play. She’s the only character that makes any sense in the midst of the whirlwind of Mary and Crick’s relationship. For the audience, she is the bedrock that we can anchor ourselves to so as not to get swept away by this agonizing script.

Ruhl may be an amazing playwright. I have no doubt about that. But this is not one of her superlative plays. I suppose, if you are a fan and want to see her early work, you may enjoy this on a exploratory level. But if you’re just looking for a good show, you’ll feel like you squandered 90 minutes.

  
      
Rating: ★★
   
   

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

A wrenching ‘Streetcar’ of desire

 

streetcar01

  
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 Long Red Road (Goodman Theatre)

We all need a reason not to die in our sleep

LongRedRoad_poster

Goodman Theatre presents:

The Long Red Road

 

by Brett C. Leonard
directed by
Philip Seymour Hoffman
through March 21st (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

We all need a reason not to die in our sleep. Such is the sad, irrefutable wisdom of The Long Red Road, where that reason proves relentlessly elusive. In playwright Brett C. Leonard’s stark, devastated landscape, bodies are physically wrecked by alcohol, hearts spiritually wracked by alcoholics.

Production_08 “I’m afraid I’ll always be thirsty,” says Sam (Tom Hardy), an alcoholic for whom every new day offers a thousand good reasons to die. Hardy’s delivery of the line sends shivers down the spine. There is no quenching this kind of thirst, only the temporary escape of blackouts. Sam isn’t alone in the conclusion that the unbearable heaviness of being is all but unendurable. Each of the six tormented souls in The Long Red Road is wandering through a desert, the unshakable ache of the relocation muscatel blues chasing them like arid Furies.

Director Philip Seymour Hoffman orchestrates the piece like a conductor shaping a symphony. A slow, deliberate crescendo of damage builds shock upon shock, none of them gratuitous, all of them wrenching. Leonard’s dialogue is spare; some scenes are all but monosyllabic, others entirely wordless. With the economy of poetry, Leonard makes every word count. The suffering on stage hits hard, the lack of extraneous frills in the staging making it all the more intense. A small oval of light in a sea of darkness pinpoints the stunning damage to a 13-year-old girl as she’s being raped by a close family member. An overflowing ashtray and a small FedEx box indicate the pathetic remnants of a life lost to whiskey. A barn ladder is an entry try way to the sins of the father, monstrosities inflicted through generations, ensuring generations of monsters to come.

Production_06 Yet for all that, The Long Red Road is profoundly optimistic. It gives nothing away to say that in the final scene, there’s a baptism by fire as an inferno consumes a silent, sinister monument to decades of abuse and awful secrets. Sex, throughout most of the play defined by fear, hate, and loss, becomes a powerfully redemptive celebration of forgiveness and unconventional beauty in the last scene. Characters who have been waiting all their lives for confirmation that they are, in fact, human beings of value, potential and goodness receive that confirmation. That it comes from beyond the grave is tragic. That it comes at all is reason for joy.

At the crux of Leonard’s harrowing drama are two brothers: Sammy (Hardy, utterly convincing as a drunk hurtling toward the point of no return) and Bob (Chris McGarry, simultaneously repulsive and profoundly empathetic portraying a man as damaged as he is damaging). Leonard gives us the backstory in atmospheric slashes of exposition, leaving the audience to connect-the-wounds as the picture slowly comes into focus.

After a horrific, completely preventable car accident led Sammy to abandon his wife Sandra (Katy Sullivan, whose flat affect is imbued with infinite shadings of conflicting love, hate, fear and stony self-reliance) and daughter Tasha (10th grader Fiona Robert in an astoundingly nuanced performance that displays range and depth well beyond her years).

Nine years after the accident, Bob is overwhelmed, tortured and enraged by demons warping his desire to do right by his inherited family into something terrible. Sammy is drinking himself to death in the dead-end town of Little Eagle, South Dakota, his school teacher girlfriend Annie (Greta Honold, a near-perfect depiction of an adult child of an alcoholic, trying to save the drunk boyfriend stand-in for her drunk father) patiently, choosing not to see the dead-end in the depths of Sammy’s “drunk, bloodshot, bullshit eyes.”

“You’re probably waiting on someone I ain’t never gonna be,” Sammy says one night, a razor-blade shard of truth slicing up through the seemingly endless torrent of repellent self-delusion that keeps him (barely) alive. That is, of course, exactly what Annie is waiting for. The moment illustrates the power of Leonard’s language and of Hoffman’s astute direction: It is instilled with the sorrow of a million lost drunks, that rare sliver of inescapable reality that propels one irrevocably toward either recovery or death.

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For Clifton (Marcos Akiaten), the Native American bartender at the ironically named Red Road bar (the red road, Clifton explains, is the Native American phrase for sobriety ), Sammy’s increasingly self-destructive binges are the symptoms of a deeply diseased man.

When the bar’s patrons – fed up with Sam’s cringingly offensive rants – decide to tie Sam to a truck axel and drag him through the Reservation (with a sign proclaiming the likes of “I’m a racist honky” around his neck), Clifton steps in and saves him. Akiaten is a largely silent wonder, dispensing tequila shots with the judgment free stony-eyed compassion that comes from a stone-solid foundation inner strength. This is a man who has fought the Furies and won – at least for today in a one-day-at-a-time recovery process that will never pass into the past tense. Clifton’s recovering, never recovered. Akiatenin captures that beautifully, craggy face reflecting the never-ending battle of turning away from a bottle while living with an endless, unquenchable thirst.

Stories of alcoholics are rarely ground-breaking – there’s nothing new about the saga of a drunk who leaves his family in ruins. But this particular tale is so authentic that it transcends its well-trod genre. When Sandra screams that Sammy “took my legs,” the moment is as raw and real as theater get, primarily because Sullivan is a phenomenal actor but secondarily because she was born without legs. The Long Red Road is defined by such veracity – startling,  moving and at times, difficult to bear in its stark authenticity.

If this acting thing doesn’t work out for Hoffman, he can always fall back on directing.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

VIDEO: Playwright Brett C. Leonard discusses his play

 

 

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