REVIEW: The Boys Room (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Victory Gardens creates powerful portrait of family paralysis

  
  

Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
   
The Boys Room
  
Written by Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Sandy Shinner
at Victory Garden’s Biograph Theater, 4233 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Because the recession has foreclosed so many homes, a lot of “boomerang kids” have returned to the nest–to the confusion of parents who thought they’d seen the last of them. It’s even more poignant if, 30 years after they supposedly left home, two middle-aged guys have returned to the sender, so to speak. That’s the bittersweet case in The Boys Room, Joel Drake Johnson’s moving portrait of two stunted sons and their arrested development.

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' at Victory Gardens. Photo by Liz Lauren.A Victory Gardens Theater world premiere richly staged by Sandy Shinner, this 90-minute slice of loss exposes the longings of two brothers’ midlife crises. Then there are the women—a mother and a son’s daughter—who contend with the brothers’ dangerous nostalgia (or regression) for their safe, secure upstairs bedroom.

Sibling rivalry is only one of the reversions that become blasts from the past. Jobless and in a troubled marriage, Tim (Steve Key) is now curled up in his childhood bed by the window: There he reads “Jane Eyre” to help his daughter in her English class, then cries himself to sleep each night. To his rage, he’s soon joined by his older brother Ron (Joe Dempsey), a grizzled dentist who left his wife and daughter because he couldn’t deal with the former’s breast cancer. (You hear “This is MY room!” a lot here.)

The brothers’ “odd couple” obviously disrupt the peaceful life of their aging mother Susan (Mary Ann Thebus), who just wants to learn Spanish so she can enjoy her elderly Latino lover all the more. Her well-earned retirement has been disrupted by all the unpacked emotional baggage her “boys” have brought home along with a lot of laundry she refuses to do. (She compares Tim’s restlessness upstairs to having “a rat rustling in the room.”)

Enraged at her father’s desertion, Ron’s teenage daughter Roann (Allison Torem) has been sent by her mom to find out Ron’s plans for any future they can forge. It’s up to her grandmother to give 16-year-old Roann the strength to endure what her sons have yet to master. In her final speech she remembers how the death of their father almost destroyed the family but, if they got through that, then…

             
Steve Key, Mary Ann Thebus and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren. Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

This is not your usual dysfunctional-family dark comedy where sitcom crises mount with the laugh track, only to have recriminations replaced by reconciliation. Johnson has a great ear for loud desperation and the self-sustaining logic of failure and the pitilessness of pity. There are no happy resolutions here, just simple survival. That makes this play far kinder to its audience’s collective intelligence than all the wishful thinking that makes for second-act hugs and unearned happy endings.

Shinner’s staging is equally grown-up. There’s obvious humor in two loser husbands turning back into whining boys, reenacting old games that made them feel safer and wanting mommy to make everything right. But Key’s Tim is far too damaged to be healed by memory-mongering, while Dempsey’s explosive Ron is paralyzed with self-loathing.

Forward facing where the men are sinking into a bogus boyhood, the women are far stronger souls. Thebus’ tough-loving Susan is a rich mix of resilience and resignation, unwilling to indulge this second childhood one second more than she needs to. Equally remarkable, Torem’s anguished adolescent conjures up all the collateral damage of broken homes and makes it as specific as a scream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in Victory Garden's 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

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REVIEW: The Piano Teacher (Next Theatre)

   
   

A heartfelt lesson on facing the music

 

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Next Theatre presents
 
The Piano Teacher
 
Written by Julie Cho
Directed by Lisa Portes
at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through Dec. 5  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

“What’s so wonderful about honesty? Mama said, ‘don’t be 100% honest.’” A retired widow shares her cookies and recollections. Next Theatre presents the Midwest premiere of The Piano Teacher. Mrs. K self-identifies as being effortlessly good at many small things. Musically inclined but not quite the concert pianist, Mrs. K starts out as a piano tuner. Later, she teaches piano from her home. Over the course of thirty years, she instructs hundreds of children. Out of loneliness, Mrs. K starts calling up her former pupils to reminisce. The reconnection jars memories that she forgot she had wanted to forget. While she was practicing scales in the living room, Mr. K was providing life lessons in the kitchen. The musical appreciation class was overshadowed by Genocide 101. The K homeschooling did have a profound impact on its students. It just wasn’t the recital variety. The Piano Teacher dramatizes the long lasting effects of being traumatized as a child.

Next_Piano_Teacher_2“My husband always said I expected too much… people are just being who they are.” Mary Ann Thebus (Mrs. K) hits all the right notes as the piano teacher. Under the direction of Lisa Portes, Thebus delivers Julia Cho’s monologues with all the familiar charm of the grandmother-next-door. Thebus is outstanding as she directly addresses the audience in the narration of her story, engaging with humorous reflections on the simple pleasures of cookies and “Dances with the Stars” enjoyed over a cup of tea. Shaking her head in amusement and continually nibbling on cookies, we see the authenticity of Thebus as a sweet old lady trying to piece together her life. This visual becomes haunting as Mrs. K is confronted with the past. Manny Buckley (Michael) gives a darkly crazed but controlled performance as a prodigy child turned disturbed adult. Buckley’s forceful interaction makes for a heart-wrenching contrast to Thebus’ fearful denial. Buckley’s wild eyes are especially threatening even when he speaks with eloquent normalcy. Representing another side to the same story, Sadieh Rifai (Mary) brings an empathetic balance as a grateful student that is worried about her favorite teacher.

The past meets present on a set, designed by Keith Pitts, that captures perfectly a piano teacher’s living room complete with musical artwork. The visual adds to the storytelling with a layer of cozy familiarity. It’s this preconception that makes the revelations more stimulating. Playwright Julia Cho introduces character analogies that are beautifully sad ‘He looked thirsty and he looked at me like I was rain.’ The narrations are delivered in fragment ramblings by a nice old lady, but when the puzzle pieces are placed together, it’s not the picture perfect image of a piano teacher’s home. Cho tells a thought-provoking tale of children’s loss of innocence. Combined with the homey atmosphere and the talented cast, The Piano Teacher is a genuine lesson in facing the music.

SPOILER ALERT: The front row gets cookies. Plan accordingly.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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The Piano Teacher runs Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays (20th, 27th, 4th) at 4pm, and Sundays at 2pm – thru December 5th

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.

  
  

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Review: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s “Richard III”

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents:

Richard III

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines
thru November 22nd (buy tickets)

reviewed by Richard Millward

Richard III is among Shakespeare’s earliest and most enduring successes and Richard, Duke of Gloucester and later King of England, perhaps his most thoroughly evil character. Despite the ingratiating manner he can turn off and on at will, Richard’s heart is as ugly and twisted as his body is deformed. Trusting no one, and thinking of nothing but his own gain, he is by turns vicious, conniving, dishonest – and utterly fascinating to audiences since Shakespeare’s colleague Richard Burbage first stepped onto the stage to declaim, "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York."

And that tradition continues unabated at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In the capable hands of Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, Richard III once again works its magic of simultaneous attraction and revulsion. Briskly paced and sensibly edited, this "Richard III" is relentless in its march towards its anti-hero’s tragic, self-inflicted destiny.

Wallace Acton as the amoral royal of the title brings a surprising amount of humor to his role. His soliloquies and asides to the audience succeed in drawing us in, making us complicit in his mad determination to seize the throne. By the time the culminating battle is approaching, Acton’s Richard has come completely undone, but with a mania and a desperation entirely in keeping with the vicious joker of but a few hours earlier.

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Other standout performers in the generally strong company include Kevin Gudahl as Richard’s cousin and accomplice, the Duke of Buckingham, John Reeger as the steadfast Lord Stanley and Dan Kenney as Catesby, Richard’s personal enforcer. Brendan Marshall-Rashid brings authority and gravitas to the small but pivotal role of Richmond, the future King Henry VII and founder of the royal House of Tudor after Richard’s death.

Interestingly enough, it is the women of this "Richard III" who truly shine – women who give lie to the assumption that politics in the Fifteenth Century must have been a man’s game. Wendy Robie, as Richard’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to the soon-deceased Edward IV, and Mary Ann Thebus as his mother, the Duchess of York, are fine, strong actors and women to be reckoned with; they deal with Richard on their own terms. Angela Ingersoll as Lady Anne Neville brings a delicate intensity to a notoriously difficult role. One can feel her chaotic emotions as she is wooed literally over the dead body of her father-in-law, King Henry VI, by the monster who killed not only that monarch, but Anne’s husband and her father. Ms. Ingersoll makes Anne’s impossible choices seem understandable – not an easy task.

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Gaines makes terrific use of the sleek, heavily reflective multi-level set clad in plexiglass – designed by Neil Patel and lit beautifully by Robert Wierzel – including inventive use of exits and entrances all through the CST’s auditorium. Special mention needs to be made of Susan E. Mickey‘s brilliant costuming. Evocative of traditional Elizabethan shapes and silhouettes, but executed in muted palettes and of lighter weight fabrics, these are clothes that suggest and reference, without encumbering actors in layers and layers of detail (see video of Ms. Mickey’s perspectives on the visual world of the play here). The director and this designer all star team continue to surprise with images of startling beauty, right up to the closing moments.

Richard III may be one of Shakespeare’s most familiar vehicles, but this is a "Richard III" to remember.

Rating: ««««

 

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