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: The Gin Game (Lincoln Square Theatre)

 

Deal ‘em and weep

 

 

Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates and Fred Wellisch in The Gin Game

        
Lincoln Square Theatre presents
   
The Gin Game
   
Written by D.L. Coburn
Directed by Kristina Schramm
at
Lincoln Square Arts Center, 4754 N. Leavitt (map)
through November 20   |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

When people are in need of friendship they will sometimes go to great lengths to keep the friends they’ve made, even when those friendships turn sour. The Gin Game, produced by Lincoln Square Theatre, takes an interesting, although somewhat strange, turn from two people looking for companionship to an unrelenting battle of words and anger.

The set resembles a typical retirement home game room with its black and white checkerboard floor, two tables each with two chairs and a stack of games organized in a shelf. It looks as though the room is in need of updating, like something found in place before it’s been rehabbed. That needs-to-be-updated quality gives the set some character and charm.

Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates and Fred Wellisch - Lincoln Square TheatreThe Gin Game reunites Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates and Fred A. Wellisch as Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin. The pair was last seen performing together in Lincoln Square Theatre’s production of The Lady in the Van. It’s clear that these two actors are very comfortable with each other on stage.

The Gin Game opens on Fonsia and Weller preparing themselves in their rooms to go out into the public spaces of their retirement home. It is visitor’s day but neither has anyone there to see them. Fonsia wanders into the game room where she finds Weller alone at a table. Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch are equally animated and instantly present from the moment the lights up come. As they begin to converse with each other, it becomes clear that each has made interesting and distinct character choices. Thorbjornsen-Coates’s Fonsia feels very proper and formal yet shy and nervous as she’s learning the ways of her new home. Wellisch’s Weller is rougher around the edges and more opinionated, but he’s not overly pushy about it. He seems friendly and charming enough. As I said before, these two have instant stage chemistry and it feels like old friends reuniting, even though in the show they’ve only just met. Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch play well off each other, creating interesting dynamics as Weller teaches Fonsia how to play gin, the game which the entire show centers around.

As Weller and Fonsia play some friendly rounds of gin, they begin to talk about their lives. Starting with small talk at first, they discuss their previous work, their families and why they’re in a retirement home. Fonsia evidently likes to talk and the conversation provides entertainment for the both. Thorbjornsen-Coates offers a pleasant demeanor that’s hard not to like, and Wellisch seems like someone’s adorable, albeit slightly cynical, grandpa.

GinGamePR3 The action of The Gin Game flows well, which is important particularly for this production. With only two actors and a play that focuses around them playing a card game, it would certainly be easy to lose energy and cause the show to drag. Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch do a terrific job of keeping the energy levels high so they scenes move quickly and keep the audience’s focus.

The more Weller and Fonsia play gin, however, it becomes clear that much more is going on below the surface. With each new hand dealt, Weller becomes more and more agitated, showing his true colors and nasty temper. Angry outbursts take the place of friendly conversation as the show quickly turns from pleasant to tense. It’s unnerving and unexpected at first when Weller just loses it, throwing cards and overturning a table. Wellisch uses this twist in character to really let loose and own Weller’s anger. Fonsia, on the other hand, becomes frightened, irritated and confused. Thorbjornsen-Coates is completely authentic in her reactions to Weller’s intensifying outbursts.

Even with all the anger and resentment building, the two continue to play out rounds of gin. As the game itself becomes more competitive, so do its players, battling each other and belittling each other. Both Thorbjornsen-Coates and Wellisch feel their character’s emotions and reactions through their whole bodies. They not only act with their words but with their body language.

For a solid performance of an intriguing work, check out Lincoln Square Theatre’s The Gin Game.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Gin Game poster - Lincoln Square Theatre

The Gin Game plays at the Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Leavitt St., through November 20. Tickets are $20 or $12 for students and seniors and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com.

   
Production Personnel  

Fred Wellisch
Actor – Weller Martin

Joy Thorbjornsen-Coates
Actor – Fonsia Dorsey

Kristina Schramm
Director

Gina Patterson
Lighting Designer

Gloria Feliciano
Stage Manager

Elayne LeTraunik
Publicity

     
     

REVIEW: On Golden Pond (Lincoln Square Theatre)

Everything but the romance on this ‘Pond’

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Lincoln Square Theatre presents
 
On Golden Pond
 
by Ernest Thompson
directed by Kristina Schramm
at
Lincoln Square Arts Center, 4754 N. Leavitt (map)
through June 12th  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

OGPpress4There’s much to admire about Lincoln Square Theatre’s tranquil, spare, and subtle rendering of Ernest Thompson’s 1978 breakout play On Golden Pond. For one, the pace of the entire production furnishes this American classic with an atmosphere of profound country quiet and ease, which colors all the interactions between its characters with a gentility long forgotten, except by the most devoted rural inhabitants.  Secondly, subtle changes in casting create a more humanizing tale of love and care between generations than one witnesses either in the 1981 Oscar-winning movie, with Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, or the 2001 live television broadcast, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Director Kristina Schramm’s direction seems determined to provide the audience with quiet emotional moments that run deep, like the soothing waters of Golden Pond itself.

Sadly, critically, what goes missing is the chemistry between its principle characters, Norman (Mark Shallow) and Ethel (Marie Goodkin) Thayer. On Golden Pond’s bedrock foundation is the life-long romance between these two contrary personalities. Norman is witty, morbid, irascible, and mischievous; Ethel is positive, energetic and outgoing–utterly stalwart in her love for Norman and embattled in her attempts to maintain his relationship between him and their daughter, Chelsea (Laura MacGregor). But, unfortunately, in Shallow and Goodkin’s hands, so much goes into expressing the differences between this rugged pair, the vital connections that keep them together almost vanish into airy nothingness.

That is a terrible misstep. For his part, Shallow shows adept grace in bringing out Norman’s most vulnerable moments. Whether in coming to terms with his progressively deteriorating memory in front of Ethel or possibly facing his last moments on earth, Shallow gives us a Norman who won’t make much ado about going into that good night. Nevertheless, he brings us to profound emotional depths with the tentativeness of Norman’s existence. Goodkin, as Ethel, could do more to bring out the nuances of living and loving a difficult creature like Norman. Her greater strength seems to be establishing Ethel’s strong emotional bonds with Chelsea or soothing the feelings of Charlie (Robert Dean), Golden Pond’s local mailman, who still carries a torch for her daughter.

OGPpress2Casting Laura MacGregor as a plump and successful Chelsea is a delightful touch—particularly when more famous productions of this play have typically chosen slender actresses for this role. Norman’s “little fat girl” is usually depicted as a woman redeemed by diets and/or exercise; but MacGregor’s Chelsea is as ample as she is—still angered by Norman’s frozen judgments of her, but capable of having love in her life all the same. MacGregor’s Chelsea is wry and self-defeating; sure of herself away from Norman, but still unsteady under his gaze. Chelsea’s new beau, Bill (Jeff Brown), is affable, direct, and credible in his ability to handle Norman’s mind games.

But perhaps the nicest touch of all is the choice of Charlie Bazzell for the role of Billy—Bill’s son by a former marriage. Other productions project Billy as a troubled kid, in need of Ethel and Norman’s redeeming care while Bill and Chelsea go off to Europe for the summer. But, thankfully, Bazzell’s Billy is just a kid being himself–without being any threat to anyone—someone with whom Norman really can have one (last?) Tom Sawyer summer. I don’t know if that makes this On Golden Pond more Norman Rockwell for most audiences—I only know that it feels much more like my own childhood growing up in rural Montana.

Much about Lincoln Square’s production is soft, sweet, and gently humanizing. If only the romance between Ethel and Norman were there, flickering with wit, beset by the scary challenges of aging—but enduring and irreproachable. The last essential scene between Ethel and Norman is genuinely effective and moving. It’s not inconceivable that this crucial element could develop and expand in the course of the run. That would not just be icing on the cake–that would be the cake that could hold everything other sweet and salty thing in it.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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