AISLE SAY Chicago (by Way of Florida)


Productions Seen and Reviewed in Chicago
as an activity of the event

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Robert Falls
Starring Nathan Lane
Goodman Theatre

 Four acts and intermissions, five hours onstage constituted, as Chicago critic and ATCA conference organizer  Jonathan Abarbanel summed up, “a monumental production of a monumental play.” Drunks and dreamers stay besotted in a bowery saloon with backroom so lowdown that anything that takes place in it has heightened impact. And what fills the place is a visit by Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, a reformed drunk and salesman who’s out to sell his former pals on joining him in a new approach to life. A realistic approach that turns out to be far from the “pipe dreams” of everyone from the bitter former anarchist Larry Slade to proprietor Harry Hope, who hasn’t been outside since his wife’s death many years ago. It’s his birthday that Hickey comes to celebrate, but it turns out to be the death of everyone else’s hopes of whatever size. They’ve been drowning in alcohol and O’Neill gives them a hand only to push them bit by bit into a final whirlpool. Director Robert Falls seems to have found  rather assembled an unforgettable cast. Nathan Lane, of rare serious import as Hickey, would have any halfway normal people follow his lead after his powerful extended revelatory monologue. His major foil, Brian Dennehy’s Larry, would appear substantial were he not bent and broken physically as well as psychologically. Adding to the length but intriguing major mysteries are whether or not Harry will make it outside, if Marc Grapey’s bartender will wed Kate Arrington’s good bad girl Cora, if John Reeger’s Lewis will recapture some of his glory as an infantry captain, and how James Harms as “Jimmy Tomorrow” Cameron might reflect once again his past as a war correspondent. All takes place under Natasha Katz’s almost no light yet Kevin Depinet’s evident dingy surroundings to which the characters have become as addicted as to drink. One might well predict that most, if not all, will be like John Hoogenakker’s nondescript Hugo. Once editor of anarchist periodicals, he seldom rears his head, as if he’s a printer’s devil fallen into hell. All in all, O’Neill at his most trying and ingenious.

(A New Musical)
by Andrew White
Music by Andre Pluess & Ben Sussman
Based on a Book by Jay Bonansinga
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
Lookinglass Theatre

Typical of creations by Lookinglass theatre’s ensemble in Chicago’s Water Tower Water Works, “Eastland” presents a tragic event involving water. Inspired by the little known sinking of the titled boat, it fictionalizes people involved on the 24th of July, 1915. Much like a folk opera with recitative, it gives them much of their say via early American-type music. Among them are Bobbie (Claire Wellin, full of pathos), trapped below deck; Malcolm Ruhl’s Musical Director with a running spoken narrative as well; Derek Hasenstab’s resourceful but unpleasant braggart Houdini, who competes with Lawrence E. Distasi’s “Human Tadpole” so deserving of that epithet. There’s a family that’s followed throughout, including a young wife Solveig who has fallen in love with a Grocer while her staid husband’s been away. Tiffany Topol and Erik Hellman’s love gets fuller treatment than any but the showpeople’s stories, but all of these have little depth. Innovative staging, including underwater scenes actually shown where projections have become the norm as well as a reconfiguration of tenting engulfing the theater-space remain the memorable aspects of  “Eastland” and have the tech staff diverting the spotlight from the performers.

by John Conroy
Directed by Nick Bowling
TimeLine Theatre Company

This world premiere by a company that takes up “yesterday’s stories” that are “today’s topics” posits the true story behind charges of alleged torture by Chicago police between 1980 and 1998. It centers on the trial-to-be (but includes background and aftermath) of Otha Jeffries. Charles Gardner presents the fierce young, definitely not simpatico Black with unremitting dark intensity of attitude and gutter language. David Parkes’ lawyer Dan Breen almost becomes the play’s hero by sticking to Otha’s defense. As his mother Rita (Ora Jones, always sensible) stresses, “I don’t want him dead but I don’t want him home.” On a small stage, Brian Sidney Bembridge’s multi-level set of piping permits present and past to take place in a variety of places connected with Otha and among those on his side and the involved police and their supporters. A woman is featured on each side, and both being blond didn’t help to keep them straight. I felt the play lost power by its split focus on what happens too often to young Black males and the morality of the police who let or make it happen. John Conroy would do well to edit out some of the complexity.  Personally, as a born and bred Chicagoan, I appreciated local insights, including the irony behind an African-American police investigator telling an out-of-area journalist he’s from Wilmette, but I had to explain it to national critics. If the production was uneven, the performances certainly were not.

(Don’t Talk About My Father Because God Is My Friend)
by Jackie Taylor
Songs by Various Composers & Lyricists
Directed by Jackie Taylor
Black Ensemble Theater

 Essentially a juke box musical, Jackie Taylor’s story of Marvin Gaye has him narrating its details (which are then acted out) from beyond (presumably heaven). The script is blunt, obvious, and given a religious aura that doesn’t go with scenes of Gaye’s depression, addiction, philandering. The musical’s redeeming feature is its staging of Gaye’s Motown contributions from Doo Wop to Rhythm and Blues to activist lyrics well backed up by appropriate music to Sophisticated Soul. Author and producer Taylor worked with Gaye’s second wife Jan, perhaps a mixed blessing, since certain questionable points of view come into play. The villain of the piece is Gaye’s father, but he wanders in and out between the excesses of Gaye’s life. No doubt, though, of Rashawn Thompson’s heroism in making Gaye as positive as possible. His great charm conquers both Gaye’s audiences and Taylor’s. As for his singing, “Let’s Get It On” brought down the house and transfixed women almost prayed in adoration, along with white-robed choruses who did so in song going toward the sainted Gaye in what had to be heaven at the finale. Special words of praise go to the lavish costumes that continue the fame of a Black Ensemble Look and to the excellent musicians whose every set is indeed heavenly.

Book by Tina Landau
Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel
Directed by Peter Marston Sullivan
Musical Direction by Alan Bukowiecki
BoHo Theatre Ensemble at Theater Wit

Diane D. Fairchild’s multi-layered, flexible set and lighting encompass a wooden deck that is Bee Doyle’s Kentucky farm and all the grounds in back and around, leading to a small opening down, around, and deep into Sand Cave. It’s where spelunker Floyd Collins sought his fortune and got trapped between January 30 and February 16, 1925. Based on a true story, the play contrasts Floyd’s early answering of the “call of the Cave” with his fall and growing despair, hurt and isolated in silence, but ultimately in thought leading to inner strength. A comparison: searchers sincerely bent on but chaotically pursuing a rescue with reporters who, trying every which way to hype events, whip up a media circus.  Floyd’s fall and others’ attempts to free him expose relationships beneath past surfaces as well as good and bad motives of everyone concerned. Most of the music, largely bluegrass and folk with a haunting central ballad, advances characterization; some furthers plot. Four musicians do yeomen’s jobs well and the cast constitute a true ensemble, fitting their roles like well-worn dungarees or as if their careers hung in the balance. Jim DeSelm, though, is outstanding star as Floyd—handsome, motivated, singing his heart out even while handling difficult physical demands of his role. Though directed at a brisk pace, the rather long play could be trimmed a bit, especially since the outcome involves no suspense. I think I might have enjoyed it more had I not recently seen the film “Ace in the Hole”—also based on the Collins story but with much greater fictionalization, emphasizing the (Kirk Douglas) role of a reporter who keeps a man trapped in a cave so as to have an “exclusive” and thus regain a great job. Events and characters moved so quickly in the film, not like an opera in which their chief reason for existing is to deliver the score.

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