Review: Steel Magnolias (Saint Sebastian Players)


Warmth, camaraderie dominate Steel Magnolias



Saint Sebastian Players presents
Steel Magnolias
Written by Robert Harling
Directed by Steven Walanka
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: Among the Squirrels (The Black Ship Co.)


Goths gone wild


Morgan Christansen, Ron Quade, William Goblirsch, Kaitlyn Whitebread - Among the Squirrels - Photo by Sean Howlett.

The Black Ship Company presents
Among the Squirrels
Written by Eric Appleton
Directed by
Nicki Mazzocca
Gorilla Tango Theatre, 1919 N. Milwaukee (map)
through Feb 26  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Among the Squirrels is a charming, sensitive and emotionally mature new play by Eric Appleton—something I never expected see at the Gorilla Tango Theatre space, and I’m glad to be proved wrong. Of course, its production is an “import,” brought by the new and “itinerant theater company that hails from Chicago’s Bucktown,” The Black Ship Company. Black is the color, indeed. Directed by Nicki Mazzocca, Among the Squirrels traffics in the trials and tribulations of the sartorially dark denizens of Chicago’s urban Goth subculture as they contend with maintaining relationships and family at the mercy of the desperate absurdities of job-searching in a recession.

Morgan Christansen, William Goblirsch, Ron Quade - Among the Squirrels by Eric Appleton - The Black Ship Co. - Sean HowletTopher (William Goblirsch Jr.) counts off the days of his unemployment like the days of some macabre reign. However, while between jobs, television nature programming and the beneficent image of David Attenborough (Ron Quade) inspire him to turn toward the natural world, “red in tooth and claw.” He finds compelling diversion in observing his neighborhood’s squirrels, naming them with all the familiarity of Jane Goodall among the apes. His mate Vicki (Kaitlyn Whitebread) holds down the fort by working at a fashionable goth hair salon, but when she finds Topher’s joblessness wearing, Topher takes a customer service position at a big box store, regardless of his skills as an IT specialist.

Appleton’s script is clever and testifies to the wittiness of his play’s subculture. “May your life be complicated,” is Vicki’s benediction, just as equally full of terror as it is a blessing. The interview scene between Topher and the big box store manager (Morgan Christiansen in several roles) is a new classic in the way it points up the ridiculous disingenuousness that is the purview of the corporate job interview with a manager who has truly drunk the Koolaid. Meanwhile, pursuing his growing interest in nature observation stimulates a relationship with a local UIC professor, which propels Topher to new horizons just when his relationship with Vicki goes on the skids. Her posh salon goes under and, oh yeah, she is pregnant with Topher’s child.

Among the Squirrels genuinely and authentically explores the transition from wild, countercultural delayed adolescence to taking on the fierce demands of settling down and parenting. The play is almost a love letter to the influences of one’s youth that continue to mold one’s worldview long after the stage of youth has been passed. Topher and Vicki are pushed to grow without demanding that they give up themselves. Indeed, but for a little editorial trimming of overlong scenes, Appleton has constructed a mature and wise delight. The Black Ship Company’s cast makes these characters super-accessible, their handling of Appleton’s script practically a gentle, wry and no nonsense conversation with the audience about growing older/growing up in tough economic times without losing your soul. Their production is certainly worth your time, especially if you enjoy witnessing the Goth gone wild.

Rating: ★★★

William Goblirsch, Kaitlyn Whitebread - Among the Squirrels by Eric Appleton - The Black Ship Co.

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All photos by Sean Howlett.