Review: The Copperhead (City Lit Theater)

   
  

This ‘copperhead’ is worth every penny

 
 

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago

  
City Lit Theater presents
 
The Copperhead
  
Written by Augustus Thomas
Directed by Kathy Scambiattera
at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $18-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

While Chekhov was over in Russia writing about social upheaval, Augustus Thomas was stateside dipping into the American experience and crafting similar pieces of realism. The demise of the old aristocracy inspired Chekhov; Reconstruction and the economic decimation of the South following the Civil War instigated Thomas’ plays. Once proclaimed as the best playwright in the nation, Thomas has faded into obscurity over the last century. Watching City Lit Theater’s solid production of his most successful play, 1918’s The Copperhead, I was struck by how well-wrought Thomas’ style seems even today. Maybe director Kathy Scambiatterra’s show will kickstart interest in one of America’s original voices.

The Copperhead - City Lit Theatre Chicago 2The Copperhead is part of City Lit’s “Civil War Project,” a five-year theatrical exploration of the Civil War. Thomas sets his drama in southern Illinois, close to the border of the Confederacy. The play centers around Milt Shanks (Mark Pracht), a Southern sympathizer, claiming he wants peace above all else. In the Land of Lincoln, that doesn’t go down well. He earns the ire of his family and community, even going to prison for his murky connections to the Rebel cause. The second half of the play is set 40 years after Appomattox, and the beliefs Shanks’ held during the war are still affecting him and his descendants.

Unlike many of his peers, Thomas completely shuns melodrama. There’s a subtle pressure and conflict that flows throughout the play. Social roles and appearances run the world, just like with Ibsen or Strindberg. What people believe is as important as what people do.

Scambiatterra elicits great performances from her strappy cast. Pracht does a fine job with the austere Shanks, remaining strong and level, while still revealing glimpses of vulnerability – we know he is still a human being in a crazy situation. The real gem in the production is Kate Tummelson, who plays Shanks’ wife in the first half and his devoted granddaughter in the second. She really drives every scene she is a part of, scrounging up independence in a time where there was very little to be had for women. As Ma Shanks, she is torn by her devotion to her son, her husband, and her country. As Madeline, she has to look out for her grandfather and her own future. Another great performance is given by Judith Hoppe as the high-spirited Grandma Pearly, who constantly talks about how war takes a toll on women.

Thomas’ writing holds up surprisingly well. Scambiaterra finds loads of humor in the script—Pracht as the older Milt mines plenty of elderly jokes. And the cast finds layers with every character; there are unspoken ethos guiding every actor on stage.

The plays runs along pretty well, but the ending ties the show together a bit too neatly. It becomes like some sort of 19th-century James Bond flick. I was hoping for something more like Chekhov, where the house lights come up leaving the audience with unanswered questions and some moral ambiguity. But Thomas taps into good ol’ American sentimentality, breaking apart complexities he spends four acts building up.

City Lit brings an honest, down-the-line approach to the script. The Copperhead can feel a bit archaic, but never wooden. It’s great to see such an old play with a local connection being done here. Thomas will never have the name recognition or acclaim of Chekhov, and he seems afraid to dive as deep into darker territory. However, his play remains relevant to any culture familiar with war. The Civil War Project is a fascinating idea, and I hope they can keep churning out work like this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Copperhead poster - City Lit Theater Chicago

  
  

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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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