Review: Steel Magnolias (Saint Sebastian Players)

     
     

Warmth, camaraderie dominate Steel Magnolias

     
     

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Saint Sebastian Players presents
  
Steel Magnolias
   
Written by Robert Harling
Directed by Steven Walanka
at
St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Something happens once one enters Saint Sebastian Players’ theater space at St. Bonaventure Church. First, there’s the sign over the stairs on the way down—“The best theatre in a basement in the universe.” Then, there’s the palpable hominess, the obvious, open responsiveness transmitted between audience and cast. Clearly, SSP is a theater company that has fostered a strong, grounded sense of community over its 30-year run. That they would choose to produce Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias fits their M.O. to a tee. Friendship and community that sees people through the rhythms of the years probably resonates more here in this space than any other in town and Chicago is simply full to the brim with small theaters that offer an intimate experience. But something about the gentle care Steven Walanka’s direction takes with each scene between the women of Truvy’s (Tricia Rogers) hair salon suggests the intimacy of family–or people who know and accept you better than family.

Steel Magnolias - Saint Sebastian Players 034Those ladies who show up to Truvy’s are legendary: Annelle (Kaitlyn Whitebread), nervous, naïve and on the run from her criminal husband; Clairee (Deborah Rodkin), widowed and searching for a life beyond being the mayor’s wife; Shelby (Margaret Scrantom), always pushing herself past the limitations of diabetes; M’Lynn (Jill Chukerman Test), her stoutly pragmatic mother; and Ouiser (Kate O’Connor), cantankerous, idiosyncratic and unstoppable. Saint Sebastian’s cast runs the risk of having every minute of their performance gauged against the 1989 movie. Yet, they succeed in creating a genuine world of their own.

Walanka’s direction starts each scene at a comfortable, neighborly pace, which allows his actors to dip into quiet, confidential moments with each other, before building to surprise or confrontation. For the most part, the cast follows the comedy’s natural rhythms organically. The testy, if loving, relationship between Shelby and her mother, M’lynn, stretches out over years of bright hope for Shelby’s future with her new husband to dire health consequences stemming from choosing to bear a child against the advice of doctors. In the meantime, Chairee and Ouiser gamely get on each other’s nerves and Annelle goes from scared runaway to party girl to born again Christian. It’s capable, sassy Truvy that provides the safe, gossipy space that is their home away from home.

     
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That’s not to say that SSP’s production is perfect. Opening night found a couple of actors starting cold and only warming to their parts by the second scene. Also, while a low-key approach to building relationships between these characters definitely has its pay-offs, there’s equally the danger of some scenes’ moments dragging. But, all in all, this cast projects the essence of camaraderie between women. Furthermore, Scrantom brings the right blend of independence and vulnerability distinctive to Shelby, while Chukerman Test brings her role as M’lynn home with simple and convincing interpretation of her frustration and rage over Shelby’s death, as well as her endurance. Overall, the production communicates the vitality of these characters and they communicate it to an audience that fully, wisely, appreciates its substance, as well as the laughter.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Photos by OCA Photography

        
       

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Review: Arms and the Man (Saint Sebastian Players)

  
  

Wrap your arms around this play!

  
  

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw - presented by Saint Sebastian Players

  
Saint Sebastian Players presents
 
Arms and the Man
  
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by
Jim Masini
at
St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey (map)
through March 13  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I always look forward to what I consider classics. I love Shakespeare, Wilde, and yes George Bernard Shaw. It’s the stuff that I had to read and write reports about in high school. Shaw has a special place in my heart for his character development, especially the female characters. In Arms and the Man, the female characters are wise, witty, and multidimensional, especially in light of the time period portrayed.

Arms and the Man - Saint Sebastian Players 05The actors in the Saint Sebastian Players’ production are pitch-perfect in this production directed by company member Jim MasiniKelly Rhyne plays the role of Raina Petkoff with coquettish aplomb and a dash of spicy feminism. Yes – feminism, which manifests itself in many way; here as a fiery, girlish, woman of power. Rhyne is a radiantly beautiful young actress, perfectly cast as the aristocratic Raina with her glowing ivory skin and delicate features. She looks as if she were really related to Melissa Reeves, who plays the archly funny matriarch Catherine Petkoff, whose comic timing and subtle physicality is a hallmark of Shavian comedy (also at home in the work of Oscar Wilde).

Drew Longo as Captain Bluntschli is reminiscent of Giancarlo Giannini in Wertmuller’s “Seven Beauties”. The exhaustion from battle, the hunger, and the desperation all play across Mr. Longo’s face – and he is hysterically funny. The dialogue is given the full weight of irony that is so essential to a comedy or farcical presentation of high society.  And the scene where Longo gobbling up the chocolates from Raina’s bureau is poignant and funny because of how well the characters interact.

Another brilliant bit of casting is Victoria Montalbano as the maid Louka. Ms. Montalbano gives great face to the all-knowing servant. Shaw illustrates the hypocrisy of elite society with the lower classes. The coercive sexual mores are turned on their heads in this work as Louka holds the aces. What a feminist she is! Her character shuns the dreary and dependable suitor, Nikola, played by the wonderful Chris McGillivray. The life of being the manservant’s wife who is taken behind the topiary is no life for her. Mr. McGillivray is also poignantly funny as the schlumpy manservant, having a great face for comedy, as perfectly witnessed as he offers the blue satchel around the room of characters.

        
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This production also stars two of the finest fall guys that I have seen in a while. Greg Callozzo as Major Petkoff is near genius in the puffed up buffoonery of nouveau riche in epaulets. The hair and the expressions fit the character’s obliviousness to what is hitting the fan and the electric bell in his home. The dialogue about bathing is just choice. Charles Askenaiser as Major Sergius Saranoff is wonderfully farcical as well. He portrays the silliness of the privileged officer braggart exquisitely.

Arms and the Man resonates to this day as a portrait of the futile nature of military war, the war between social classes, and the wars of the sexes. The human imperative to dominate obscures meaningful purpose and puts up blocks to true connection.

Emil Zbella’s sets are quite lovely and authentic-looking for turn of the 19th century. The brocades and floral patterns are fun and well designed. I loved the oh-so-special library that Lady Petkoff speaks of in proud tone and the look on her face when she pushes the electric bell is just great. The costumes (Tina Godziszewski) are fun and also appear quite authentic for 1885. There are bustles, furs and parasols (I want that fur night cloak that Raina wraps in when the bedraggled Captain Bluntschli invades her dainty bedchamber!). The wigs and hair are worthy of an operatic wig master. When I saw the actors after the show it was hard to tell who was who. That is a sign of a great production where the actors disappear into the characters on stage. They were just as gracious off stage. Go see this play. It is fun and goes way beneath the surface. The more the world changes-the more it stays the same.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
   

Arms and the Man - Sebastian Players - setArms and the Man continues through March 13th at Saint Bonaventure Parish at Diversey and Ashland n Chicago. This play is part of the 30th Anniversary season for theatre company. Visit the website for more information www.saintsebastianplayers.org


Artists

 

Cast: Kelly Rhyne* (Raina Petkoff), Victoria Montalbano* (Louka), Charles Askenaizer (Major Sergius Saranoff), Greg Callozzo (Major Petkoff), Drew Longo (Captain Bluntschli), Chris McGillivray (Nikola), and Melissa Reeves (Catherine Petkoff).

Production: Jim Masini (director), Emil Zbella (set designer), Tina Godziszewski  (costume design) Mansie O’Leary (costume design) Kalin Gullberg (lighting design), Leah Cox (dramaturg), Adam Seidel* (set construction manager), Don Johnson* (sound design), Al Cerkan* (stage manager), Mary Whalen* (properties manager), John Oster (photos), Nancy Pollock* and Jill Chukerman Test* (co-producters).

*Saint Sebastian Players member

  
  

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