Review: Night and Her Stars (The Gift Theatre Company)

  
  

Thornton and his cast earn their ‘applause light’

  
  

Ray Shoemaker and Joe Mack in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

   
The Gift Theatre presents
  
Night and Her Stars
  
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by
Michael Patrick Thornton
at
Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through April 24  | 
tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The effect of television on human civilization has been up for debate since the first flickering blue light emitted into people’s homes. “What was life like before television?” is a question that is repeated in Richard Greenberg’s 1995 play, Night and Her Stars, revolving around the 1950’s quiz show scandal involving academic Charles Van Doren and the Q&A show, “21”, now running at The Gift Theatre, directed with mastery by artistic director, Michael Patrick Thornton.

The vast majority of the American population can hardly fathom an existence without television. As this number increases, the debate on the social implications of television withers, being replaced by greater evils of technology. Nevertheless, this tale of America’s tested faith in television, and The Gift’s production, succeeds in reveling in nostalgia whilst finding immediacy, resonance and heart in its characters and their flaws.

Lindsey Barlag (foreground) and Erika Schmidt in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.As Greenberg himself notes, this play “must not be mistaken for history.” It is in this vain that the Gift takes us back to a skewed cold war era consumer driven television world of the 1950’s. Set designer Adam Veness does a remarkable job of transforming the tinderbox storefront space into a gaudy haunting replica of the notorious game show, “Twenty One”, complete with an “Applause” lighted sign and a four-sided blue glowing orb of a television set.

The first act primarily follows the rise and fall of the knowledgeable Jewish contestant Herb Stempel (played by Raymond Shoemaker with pitch perfect desperation, optimism and hamartia). Stempel is discovered by game show producer Dan Enright (Danny Ahlfeld) after being pressured by sponsors and execs to bring brighter contestants onto the show to avoid dead silence and stammering. Ed Flynn gives an entertaining supporting performance as the Geritol sponsor pleading with Enright, “I have to appeal to geriatrics.” These demands lead to Enright feeding answers to an initially hesitant Stempel resulting in his reigning championship run.

Stempel’s ethnicity and lack of on-camera charisma aren’t quite what the show’s audience is looking for, as Keith Neagle delivers the powerfully cringing line, “I hate him like rabies!” In one of the highlights of the play, Shoemaker is brilliant as Stempel pleading for any other question than the one he is given to go down on during his fall. As Stempel begins to reveal the truth to the press, Enright plays it off as “Jewish self-hatred.”

Along comes the more “all-American” contestant Charles Van Doren (Jay Worthington) who descends from a long line of famed academics. Van Doren is fed answers to replace Stempel on the show. Worthington gives a complex and exciting performance. As Charlie, he conveys a man who is given everything at once, yet happiness eludes him.

Charlie Van Doren’ can be considered a symbol of television stardom, be it quiz shows or reality shows. He embodies short lived fame and a lack of touch with the real world. Contrasting another Charlie amidst a modern day TV scandal, Van Doren finally exclaims, “I don’t want to win anymore.” Van Doren’s confession is staged effectively by Thornton with a chorus of the Christian congress instantly forgiving his sins.

Branimira Ivanova’s costumes are scrumptious, with many raided directly from the “Mad Men” wardrobe department, giving us glimpses into a range of rising movements in the late 50’s during the American Chorus’ interludes. The pinstriped suit and polka-dotted tie Enright gives to Stempel for his television debut is a sure laugh each night. Lighting designer Scott Pillsbury creates impressive effects and moods with the small space including an emotional lighting storm and perfectly placed moments in which the audience becomes lit. Miles Polaski’s sound design balances nicely between the atmospheric and the expressive spectrums.

     
Keith Neagle, Aemilia Scott and Jay Worthington in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg. Aemilia Scott and Ray Shoemaker in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars', wirtten by Richard Greenberg.

While Shoemaker and Worthington carry the show, it is ultimately an ensemble production. Joe Mack may be the most perfect casting in his turn as the oblivious game show host Jack Berry. Thornton utilizes Greenberg’s American Chorus expertly, as these fine actors come into the light to play pivotal roles only to disappear into an ever watching amoeba. Katie Genualdi is charming and smart in her various appearances, especially at the top of the second act in an ad for cornflakes infused with caffeine. Erika Schmidt has a calm intensity as a reporter who finally brings Van Doren to the truth. Established Chicago actor Paul D’Addario, as the exec Al Freedman, is as powerful of a presence silent as he is during dialogue. Aemilia Scott, as Stempel’s wife, is fascinating in struggling with her doubts for her husband. Ahlfeld’s Enright occasionally has some pacing and timing issues that may get tighter during the run.

While Greenberg’s telling of this cautionary tale may not land quite as powerfully as a decade or two ago, it still stands the test of time as an historical account that has grown into legend. The heart and humanity of this play lies with a character I’ve yet to mention played with wonder and honesty by veteran actor Richard Henzel. Perhaps, do yourself a favor and save the reading of the program until after the show and be surprised by the final scene in which we finally see Van Doren in his natural setting.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jay Worthington and Richard Henzel in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

Night and Her Stars continues at The Gift Theatre through April 24th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm with Sunday matinees at 2:30. (no shows April 16 and 17). Running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 (Sundays) and $30 (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Industry and senior prices: $20 (Sundays only). For more info visit  thegifttheatre.org.

     
     

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REVIEW: The Lonesome West (The Gift Theatre)

  
  

Laughs and loneliness in the Irish countryside

 

 Lonesome West

  
The Gift Theatre presents
   
The Lonesome West
  
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Sheldon Patinkin 
at
The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through Dec. 19  |  tickets: $20-$30  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

There’s something oddly Midwestern about Martin McDonagh’s depiction of the Irish hamlet Leenane. There are a few scenic landscapes and a ton of boredom. Perhaps that’s why Chicagoans react so well to his homicide-riddled plays. Even though we’re oceans apart from Connemara, something seemed very familiar in The Gift Theatre’s production of The Lonesome West. I believe I’m less inclined to murder, but the monotony of Valene’s and Coleman’s existence is definitely relatable.

The Lonesome West is part of a loose “Connemara trilogy” of plays set in the West Irish hills, the other being Beauty Queen of Leenane (which Gift put up a few years back) and A Skull in Connemara. Although Lonesome West has much less stage blood than many other McDonagh’s plays, it’s still rife with violence. Two brothers (masterfully portrayed here by John Gawlik and John Kelly Connolly) bicker constantly over just about everything, from money to bags of chips. Frequently, the spats boil Lonesome West2 over into armed duels. The brothers’ relationship causes plenty of heartache for the local priest, Father Welsh (Paul D’Addario), who is already wracked by oodles of Catholic guilt and alcoholism. The quartet of characters is rounded out by Girleen (Brittany Burch, who makes a terrific Chicago debut), a girl who might be jailbait, but could also be much more sentimental.

Probably the most striking aspect of the production is the fiery dynamic between Gawlik, who plays the wrathful Coleman, and Connolly, who portrays the miserly Valene. Lonesome West a great example of a play which comes off much different on the stage as opposed to the page. Gawlik and Connolly are tip-toeing towards middle age, which makes the childish infighting of Valene and Coleman feel especially pathetic. When merely reading McDonagh’s text, this doesn’t particularly jump out, it’s easy to forget the character’s ages when they act so immature. But Gawlik and Connolly force out the characters’ pettiness, the major driving force for the production.

Obviously, Gawlik and Connolly have much more than their age going for them. The duo has an engaging chemistry. They can barely hide their glee as the two brothers one-up each other. Gawlik is able to mine dark, vicious depths for a truly spiteful Coleman. Connolly, on the other hand, finds the grubby greediness of a five-year-old.

D’Addario, a Gift favorite, gives another great performance. He comes off as essentially Catholic, sickened and saddened by what he sees around him, but unsure about how to proceed (which, in turn, leads to more guilt). Through Lonesome West, McDonagh joins the leagues of Irish writers before him that comment and struggle with the dominant faith of their island. In the semi-mystical style that modern Celtic playwrights love, the play basically becomes about the damnation of souls, a spectacular turn that works despite seeming destructively heavy. D’Addario is a big part of making the plot churn forward, and he is successful.

Along with D’Addario, the story wouldn’t work without the solid performance of Burch. At first, her Girleen just seems like silly, flirtatious eye candy, but the character’s complex layers shine through as the production progresses. In fact, my favorite scene is the one without the brothers. Halfway through the piece, D’Addario and Burch share a stage alone and the outcome is electric, dripping with loneliness and desperation.

Sheldon Patinkin’s direction shows a smart understanding of the tumultuous relationships that McDonagh writes so well. The first half is uneven, slack in pacing and the cast seems a little timid. It takes until after intermission for the show to start shooting sparks. Once everything snaps together, the production flies. For a show often billed as a black comedy, there’s a hefty amount of heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Noble Fool Theatre changes name, announces new season

 

 

Artistic Director John Gawlik shares his thoughts on name change

 

Noble Fool Theatricals, the well-established professional theater in the Fox Valley area, has announced a new direction for their nonprofit organization. Beginning their calendar year season in January 2011, Noble Fool will become Fox Valley Repertory; a name that represents the community they have grown their mission, vision, patron base, and academy students around.

I assure you that you can still count on outstanding productions because we are not a new organization. Our staff is the same, dedicated team,” says Artistic Director John Gawlik. “But after several years of growth, we simply wanted our name to represent the strong bond we have created with our patrons and community. We know this will help our patrons connect with our stories and begin referencing us as ‘our theater’ even more.”

As the nonprofit theater company in residence at Pheasant Run Resort for the seventh year, “we are focused on creating an engaging theater experience by producing shows that inspire our community to laugh, reflect and reconnect to moments in one’s life,” says Artistic Director John Gawlik. A major portion of their commitment is through arts education, as they continue their task of inspiring youth to explore their own lives through the performing arts.

For Fox Valley Repertory’s 2011 season, Gawlik has programmed an exciting season with some of the top and emerging directors in Chicago.

To celebrate our new vision and name, we are offering the best subscription rates and benefits in the area,” says Gawlik. “Our 4-show packages are heavily discounted at $65 and $80 per person. We’re hoping the Fox Valley area will join us with this great introductory price. Our number of subscribers has grown tremendously in the last two years, and we hope this continues.”


Fox Valley Repertory’s 2011 Season

 

January 20 – March 13, 2011

Leaving Iowa

The Comedy About Family Vacations

By Tim Clue and Spike Manton
Directed by Rachel Rockwell; named Chicago Magazine’s Director of the Year (2010).

   
  Middle-aged writer Don Browning is searching for the perfect spot to scatter his father’s ashes. As he travels the paths his family took on their annual vacations, images of his father and the shared family tortures surround his memories. This homegrown comedy will have you revisiting your fond (and not-so-fond) memories of your youth.
   
   

March 24 – May 15, 2011

Always, Patsy Cline

‘The Sweetest Musical This Side of Heaven’

Directed by John Gawlik; director of The Gift Theatre’s The Ruby Sunrise, named one of the Top Ten shows of 2009 by TimeOut Chicago Magazine 

   
  More than just a tribute to the late legendary country singer, this Off-Broadway musical recounts Cline’s true friendship with a fan from Houston, whom she befriended at a Texas honky tonk and remained pen pals with until her early death. Complete with down home country humor and true emotion, this 1960s tribute includes many of Patsy’ unforgettable hits such as Crazy, I Fall to Pieces, Sweet Dreams and Waking
After Midnight. Rating: PG
   
   

June 9 – July 31, 2011

Around the World in 80 Days

A Classic Adventure Comedy

Written for the stage by Mark Brown, from the novel by Jules Verne

Directed by John Gawlik 

   
  Based on Jules Verne’s classic novel, join fearless adventurer Phileas Fogg as he sets out to circle the globe in an unheard-of 80 days. It’s a race against the clock as he contends stampeding elephants, raging typhoons, bandits, and a detective who thinks he’s a robber on the run. Danger, romance, and comic surprises abound in this whirlwind of a show as five actors portray 39 characters in seven continents.
   
   

August 18 – October 9, 2011

They’re Playing Our Song

Book by Neil Simon; Music by Marvin Hamlisch; Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager

Directed by Jonathan Berry, hailed as “one of Chicago’s most talented young directors” by Chicago Tribune. 

   
  When an award-winning, straight-laced composer teams up with a quirky, aspiring lyricist, it’s far from a match made in musical heaven. But when an unexpected romance builds between them, they hilariously struggle to find harmony. Based on the real life love story of Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, Neil Simon’s romantic musical will leave a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Rating: PG
   
   

July 7 – August 7, 2011

Bad Dates

A Woman’s Quest for Love and the Perfect Pair of Shoes

By Theresa Rebeck

Directed by Kimberly Senior, one of Chicago’s most acclaimed directors. 

   
  If you like “Sex and the City” and Bridget Jones’ Diary, you’ll love this romantic one-woman comedy! Single mom and Texas transplant Haley Walker tries to balance the pressures of her new NYC restaurant career, raising a moody teenage daughter, and the too-close-for-comfort relationship with the Romanian mob, all while trying to find her way back into the dating scene…nothing that a great pair of shoes couldn’t fix! Haley needs your shoulder to cry and laugh on as she shares her dating adventures with you.
   
   

Collider 2011: New Play Project

A new play program partnering local scientists and Fox Valley Repertory in developing new works that help us better understand the universe and who we are, while illuminating and celebrating the worlds of art, science and technology.

Big Bang Ten Minute Plays

World premier ten minute plays will be performed during the Fox Valley Rep Summer Arts Fest.

Other Fox Valley Repertory Productions

 

October 14 – 30, 2011

The Woman in Black

A Spine-Chilling Tale

Special Halloween Eve Performance on Sunday, October 30 @ 7pm!

By Stephen Malatratt.  Based on the novel by Susan Hill

   
  A London lawyer hires an actor to help recount a story to family and friends that has long troubled him since he attended the funeral of an elderly recluse. During the reenactment, you’ll be gripping your seats with a chill down your spine as you experience the horror and terror of this haunting tale. We just hope you’ll live to retell the tale of one of the longest-running suspense thrillers in history. Rating: PG-13
   
   

November 10 – December 24, 2011

It’s a Wonderful Life

A Live Radio Play 

   
  Inspired by Frank Capra’s beloved American holiday classic, you’ll become a part of a 1940s live broadcast as actors bring the fateful story of George Bailey to life. As a studio audience member, you’ll relive the beloved tale of regret and redemption complete with classic holiday songs, a six member Children’s choir, instruments, man-made sound effects, and live commercials.
   
   

Other Performances

In addition to these performances, Fox Valley Repertory will be producing five youth ensemble musical performances, four holiday productions, and presenting six live music events and four national comedy touring acts – together, totaling to 251 performances during the 2011 season.

Ticket Information

Pheasant Run Resort is located at 4051 E. Main St., St. Charles, IL. Season subscriptions start at $65 for show only tickets (discounted dinner-show subscriptions also available) and are currently available by calling call the Box Office at 630-584-6342. Full priced single tickets for each production will go on sale at a later date.

Additional information on the 2011 Season and Noble Fool Theatricals soon-to-be Fox Valley Repertory are available at http://www.noblefool.org or www.foxvalleyrep.org.

      
     

REVIEW: Days of Late (SiNNERMAN Ensemble)

The quandaries of modern love

 

DaysOfLate7

 
SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents
 
Days of Late
 
Written/directed by Braden LuBell
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through May 22nd | tickets: $15-$20 | more info

reviewed  by K.D. Hopkins

SiNNERMAN Ensemble has produced a quirky and intense expose of life and love among the twenty to thirty-something generation. Days of Late lays bare the labyrinth that relationships have become in the electronic age. Written and directed by Braden LuBell, Days of Late features a remarkable ensemble.

DaysOfLate4 Navigating the path to relationship has become an inorganic process post-millennium. Text messages, instant messages, tweeting, g-talk, dating sites, and anonymity have taken the place of meeting a girl or a guy at school, church or even the local pub in “days of late”. Everyone is longing for intimacy but the means of attaining it are anything but intimate.

LuBell’s script is a series of well-staged scenarios between a group of friends and their assorted associates. The minimalist set is similar to Lucid (our review ★★½)also directed by LuBell but it works much better with his own writing. The actors move the simple pieces of furniture about in between scenes like puzzle pieces, and then sit on the sides of the stage as observers in the shadows. This allows the actors to be the focus of attention but calls to mind how love is manipulated and discarded like so much furniture.

Some of the cast members really stood out. Shane Kenyon as Arthur and Sue Redman as Avery represent the most authentic journey of all the relationships. Mr. Kenyon’s comedic timing is perfect and in a second he breaks your heart projecting the frustration of trying to be honest in a world that thrives on game playing. Ms. Redman is the perfect accompaniment as Avery. Her character’s explanation of having to look great to attract the right guy while repelling the wrong guy at the same time was hilarious in its honesty. The performances by Ebony Wimbs and Doug Tyler are interesting in that they are portraying characters that have been emotionally stunted from childhood. Ms. Wimbs plays Nina – a woman who has made her way into the world of high art and her model for love is more like a business plan. She finds Max (Tyler) online, who has just ended a two-year relationship with a man. Max wants to have the American family ideal. ‘Someone to grow old with and have kids’ is on his agenda and he decides that it should be a woman. There is a contrived nature to their relationship, seemingly constructed with directions from advice columns and magazine articles on identity and poly-amory. The performances of Ms. Wimbs and Mr. Tyler have a fine balance in portraying this situation. They are nuanced and open hearted even when it all comes to an unexpected conclusion.

Brian Kavanaugh (as Dale) makes the perfect sinister attorney on the down low who orders anonymous sex online to be delivered to his office. Dale is a jerk to everyone and cannot seem to come to terms with his sexual longings. Arianne Ellison has a funny and poignant turn as Dale’s emotionally abused wife Chrissy. One can not help but flinch as Dale berates her for not appreciating how hard he worked to get them to an upper echelon of society. The New Year’s Eve scene with Chrissy and Avery is beautifully acted and literally shows what happened to the cheerleader who had it all.

DaysOfLate8 DaysOfLate5
DaysOfLate6 DaysOfLate3

Christine Lin, as Miyoko the gallery curator, and Bret Lee as Sascha, the gay starving artist, fill out the cast, do a fine job with roles that feel contrived and stereotypical. Ms. Lin is the Asian woman who rebels against the stereotype of submissiveness by being the polar opposite. She is revolted when she has her first orgasm delivered with great comic and sexy flair by Mr. Kenyon. She is used to rough and anonymous sodomy with Dale the doltish attorney and hates that she loses control. Mr. Lee spends most of the play as the walking wounded. He doesn’t get any of the snappy repartee or double entendre but manages to turn in a fine performance free of snark or self-pity.

The performances in Days of Late owe a lot to a fluid script. Some of the terms that could be a challenge are made clear by the writing and smooth direction. I am glad to be a generation before the one portrayed in this production. The world is an emotional minefield and the roadmap is mostly a mélange of instant gratification. This generation has been raised in an era of permissiveness and experimentation under the guise of personal freedom. Self-control and letting things unfold naturally still turn out to be the winning ticket. Days of Late is a definite winner. It is funny, warm, and potentially shocking in its frankness. Not for kids unless you want to do some hard explaining.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

“Days of Late” runs through May 22nd at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western in Chicago. The times are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are available by calling 773-296-6024 or www.viaducttheatre.com. Read more about this talented ensemble at http://www.sinnermanensemble.org.

 days-of-late-postcard

 

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REVIEW: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Gift Theatre)

Crazy good, but not great

 
CUCKOOS#2
 
The Gift Theatre presents:
 
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
 
by Dale Wasserman
based on the novel by Ken Kesey
directed by John Kelly Connolly
at Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through May 9th (more info)

reviewed by Katy Walsh 

“Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

      -American children’s folk rhyme

Less than fifty years ago, lobotomies and electroshock treatments were still the accepted prescription to cure mental illness. The Gift Theatre presents One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a play based on the multiple Academy Award-Winning film version of the novel of the same name, by Ken Kesey. Set in 1959, the story takes place in a psychiatric institution. The patients, orderlies and even doctors are under the self-appointed supervision of Nurse Ratched. Through ‘therapeutic’ humiliation, Nurse Ratched manipulates her fiefdom into disciplined obedience. Her tranquility is threatened upon the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy. Trying to avoid hard labor on a work farm, McMurphy opts for the loony bin to serve his remaining five month sentence. Although McMurphy is non-compliant with authority issues, he’s not crazy. It’s Ratched vs McMurphy for control of the psychos. Seeing the Gift Theatre’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a voluntary commitment to witness the true madness of corrupt authority in a healing profession.

The Gift Theatre has this Grotowski quote on their home page:

 
Acting is a particularly thankless art. It dies with the actor.
Nothing survives him but the reviews, which do not usually do
him justice anyway, whether he is good or bad. So the only
source of satisfaction left to him is the audience’s reaction. The
actor, in this special process of discipline and self-sacrifice,
self-penetration and molding, is not afraid to go beyond all
normally acceptable limits.  The actor makes a total gift of himself.

                –Jerzy Grotowski “Towards a Poor Theatre”

It’s a powerful statement to the life of a stage actor. Movie actors have it a little easier. Their legacy is preserved in film… forever. Unfortunately and fortunately, it’s the Academy Award-Winning performances of Jack Nicholson (McMurphy) and Louise Fletcher (Ratched) that haunt this stage version. Both Paul D’Addario (McMurphy) and Alexandra Main (Ratched) play it safe – following suit to the film depiction of their roles. It’s not wrong, but it just isn’t quite right. To quote Nurse Ratched, D’Addario and Main are “just fine.”

CUCKOOS#3 This show really belongs to the supporting crazies. Jay Worthington (Billy Bibbit) is a standout as a stuttering, vulnerable mama’s boy. Different from the film version of his character, Kent L. Joseph (Chief Bromden) narrates the crazy practices of the hospital in disturbing monologues. His ability to ball up his massive frame into a defenseless pile is amazing. David Fink (Martini) is hilarious in his delusional state. Guy Massey (Harding) is frighteningly sane as a crazy patient. With no real lines, Adam Rosowicz (Ruckly) delivers a memorable performance with inhumane sounds and physicality.

This cast is huge. The stage is small. Under the direction of John Kelly Connolly, the ensemble set up and break down chairs an insane amount of times. This stage “clean-up” throws off the pacing slightly and the scene transitions are clunky. The set, designed by Ian Zywica , is institutional, right down to the green “mental ward” paint choice. Kate Murphy designed the costumes which are a wonderful combo of old school nurses’ uniforms, 50’s cocktail dresses and pajama party. Whether it was Murphy’s or the actor’s decision, I loved Norman H. Tobin (Scanlon) appearing throughout the show with only one slipper on. Come on…that’s crazy!

Overall, this production tends to basically be a live version of the 1970’s movie, which makes it an entertaining gift available to be unwrapped through May 9th.
 

 

Rating: ★★½

 

 CUCKOOS#1

Running time: two hours and forty five minutes includes fifteen minute intermission and delayed start.  

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This week’s Openings and Closings

chicago-fountain-skyline

show openings

The Addams Family Broadway In Chicago

American Buffalo Steppenwolf Theatre 

Christmas Follies Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus

The Nutcracker Center for the Performing Arts at Governors State University

The Nutcracker North Shore Center for the Performing Arts

In the Heights Broadway In Chicago

It’s a Wonderful Life Improv Playhouse Radio Theatre

It’s a Wonderful Life AFTRA/SAG Senior Radio Players

Rent, School Edition Studio BE

Salsa Sketch Gorilla Tango Theatre

chicagoatnight

 

show closings

CUBA and his Teddy Bear UrbanTheater / PEOPLE’S Theater of Chicago

The Dreamers Theatre Building Chicago 

How to Act Around Cops The Artistic Home

The Mercy Seat Profiles Theatre

The Mystery of Irma Vep Court Theatre

The Nutcracker Sings Jedlicka Performing Arts Center

Patchwork U.S.A. Raven Theatre

Peter Gallagher, Don’t Give Up on Me Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place

Stars in the Attic Gorilla Tango Theatre

Summer People The Gift Theatre

Time Traveling Mom-Dad Gorilla Tango Theatre

Towards the Sun! Gorilla Tango Theatre

Young Frankenstein Broadway In Chicago

Review: Gift Theatre’s “Summer People”

Keen performances elevate ‘Summer People’s’ tenuous script

 summer_people_Rob_Belushi_Justin_James_Farley

The Gift Theatre Company presents:

Summer People

by Jenny Connell
directed by Paul D’Addario
runs through Dec. 13 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

The Gift Theatre Company ensemble members Lynda Newton and Danny Ahlfeld open Summer People with a dramatic storm scene. We don’t yet know who this anguished couple is, but we understand that a daughter is missing, possibly dead; her father unreachable; and the relationship between the two on stage troubled.

summer_peopleIt’s a powerful scene, and these two dominate the production with keen performances throughout. Yet it creates a heavy foreshadowing over the rest of the play, which unfolds in a flashback to the preceding weeks.

Five damaged people have come together near Mount Desert, Maine, a place nicely sketched by Brendan Donaldson‘s set. Ahlfeld, we learn, is Scotty, manager of a campgrounds and general store there, a Vietnam veteran whose war experiences left him too emotionally scarred for any more ambitious life. Newton plays Kate, a Maine native who returns from New York City every summer with her family.

This summer, however, is different. Kate and her two daughters, Laura and Sam, arrive at their cottage as usual, but Kate’s husband has deserted them, upsetting all three. Kate struggles with single parenthood, loneliness and feelings of inadequacy.

Kate’s daughter Laura, also troubled by her emerging sexual awareness and the typical angst and rebelliousness of teenaged girls, fights with her mother – particularly as Kate and Scotty draw closer. Imaginative young Sam copes by videotaping everything that happens to show Dad what he’s missing and spends her time snooping around the campgrounds, especially at Site 54, where a clearly disturbed, newly discharged Marine grapples with the ghosts of his time in Iraq.

Ahlfield puts just enough Maine drawl into his voice without overdoing it, perfectly conveying Scotty’s laidback yet neurotic character in a fine counterpoint to Newton’s expressiveness as the often frenzied Kate. They create characters one immediately warms to. Ray Gray, a senior at the Latin School, and 9-year-old Grace Goble put in very natural performances as Laura and Sam.

summer_people_Danny Ahlfeld_Grace Goble As the young Marine, Rob Belushi (yes, his dad is Jim Belushi), often seems stiff -perhaps more so than the awkwardness his role demands. He loosens up only momentarily in a couple of scenes with Justin James Farley and Minita Gandhi, who play characters out of the Marine’s time in Iraq. Or perhaps it’s just that this character isn’t very well developed, but a sort of cardboard case of shell shock. Outside of his war experience, we learn nothing about him – not even his name.

While the first scene let us know something bad is going to happen, when it comes it’s a brief and abrupt anticlimax. The tragic final scene quickly becomes predictable, with far less drama than the opening, and the build up lacks tension. Director Paul D’Addario‘s generally good staging comes apart a bit, too. The restraint that serves most of the play quite well doesn’t fit here.

At 70 minutes, without intermission, Summer People feels like two-thirds of a play – short and somewhat tenuous. What there is, is worth seeing, but I’d have liked to have seen the rest. A longer, two-act script might have overcome the heavy-handed forewarning of the first scene, and conveyed something more than the obvious message that war makes people crazy.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Notes: Free parking is available in the gravel lot at 5237 W. Lawrence Ave. No late seating permitted.