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: El Stories – Red Line (Waltzing Mechanics)

     
     

Passionate passengers tell their stories

     
    

CTA red line belmont stop

  
Waltzing Mechanics present
  
El Stories: Red Line
   
Adapted and Directed by Thomas Murray
at
City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Feb 23  | 
tickets: $10  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

As it crosses the city, the Red Line delivers its own cross-section within every car on each train. This inexhaustible supply of “war stories”–from bemused or outraged commuters and less than passive passengers–supplies the oral histories in Waltzing Mechanics’ hour-long trove of an urban travelogue.

waltzing mechanics - el storiesAs fluid as their material, the ten young performers, smoothly blocked by adaptor Thomas Murray, keep their imaginary el ride real. There’s a story for almost every stop from Jackson to Howard, with the action as random and revealing as accidental encounters and unintended intimacies deliver. Happily, given the Mechanics’ tough-loving sympathy for life’s underdogs, there’s little condescension in these vignettes.

So, not only do we hear about the homeless guy who took a dump on the Jackson stop’s platform, we also learn how in his crazy way he tried to warn his fellow travelers not to look before, well, nature took its course.

Imagine the craziest Red line trip you could take from downtown through Uptown to Rogers Park, with close encounters that are sometimes, well, too close for comfort. Along the wild way you meet a loud huckster who creates fake gospel songs to promote her incoherent promotions. A bicyclist who’s also a serial abuser of books from the CPL carefully wraps up evidence of his neglect. A cute blue-eyed stranger reluctantly reveals why he’s heading west–by showing the needle marks on his arms that he hopes will gradually fade away.

     
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A screamer discharges his mania at the station and suddenly silences himself on the train. Between naps, a drunk eats the world’s largest sub sandwich. News of Patrick Swayze’s death spreads like wildfire throughout a car. There’s a caped crusader, two very inept flash-mob “twins,” a diva who cleans her eyeliner brush on the seat, out-of-control kids, an imbecile who thinks the Union Jack is the Nazi swastika, a hand that goes up the wrong butt during a tight trip, a group of guys whose sexist rap is spread all over the car, a jerk who confuses a brush with a push, and all those who just don’t want to get involved, even when someone needs help.

All that the CTA provides so generously for only $2.25 is even more concentrated in this wacky assemblage (which at $10 is a bargain as well). Judging from the title, it’s far from finished, not when there’s still blue, brown, pink, purple and green lines left to expose.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
   

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El Stories continues through February 23rd, with 8pm performances Monday-Wednesday @ City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr.  $10 general admission at door; advanced tickets available here.  More info: waltzingmechanics.org/EL_Stories.html 


Artists

 

Adapted from original interviews and directed by Thomas Murray

Featuring Bryan Campbell, Nick Chandler, Zack Florent, Lance Hill, Keely Leonard, Eric Loughlin, Adrienne Matzen, Eleni Pappageorge, Shariba Rivers, and Margaret Scrantom.

Stage managed by Tina Frey