In New Orleans’ Underbelly

Airline Highway

By Lisa D’Amour

Lisa D’Amour’s play introduces us to people tossed aside by life but who have found something resembling family at the Hummingbird Hotel, a wreck of a place that early on we know is doomed, as the area is undergoing gentrification witnessed by the building of a new Costco nearby. It features a large cast of failures, from the affable hotel manager, to the down and out prostitute, to the transgender performer, the burned out poet, the guy who got out (with the best name, Bait Boy), and the matriarch of the place, the dying former burlesque queen, Miss Ruby.

The play progresses through a day and it’s a monumental one as Hummingbird occupants, in love and gratitude to Ruby, are granting her wish and putting on a funeral party (Act II) for her, as she wanted in advance of her death while she could enjoy it (though she is enfeebled to the point of confinement to a concocted wheelchair and the ravages of dementia).

The dialogue overlaps and spins around the set, giving the production a built-in fast pace, but which requires audiences to pay close attention. Often it’s raw, as you would expect from folks kicked around by life and dumped on the road to the airport, and funny, too. But it also mines quite a bit of sentimentality, more sympathy for the characters, less empathy.

While it is definitely fun and colorful to watch, especially an immersive black box production, it may leave you feeling a bit less than fulfilled or with any more insight into the condition of marginal society, other than that people can create and need community even in the most awful circumstances. w/c


The Ghosts of Tennessee Williams on Stage

The Glass Menagerie

By Tennessee Williams

In this, his first hit play, Tennessee Williams draws on many aspects of his own life—his alcoholic traveling shoe salesman and often absent father, his Southern belle mother (a recurring character in Williams’s work), his mentally ill sister Rose (who received a lobotomy), and his own difficulties with not fitting in—to create a compelling and complex psychological drama of people trapped in an illusory world. In the end, one attempts to escape, as Williams himself did, only to acknowledge that escaping from memories is impossible.

Tom Wingfield narrates the story of his family, focusing on his last days he is with them. Deserted by the father, whose picture hangs prominently on the wall, Tom must work in a shoe factory to support his mother Amanda and sister Laura. His role makes him resentful and angry. He dreams of and threatens to leave to pursue his own interests, writing.

Amanda lives in the past, regaling family and audience with stories of her upbringing and her beaus. Abandoned once, she fears Tom will walk out on Laura and her.

Laura suffers from crippling shyness, more debilitating than her physical limp.

At the urging of Amanda, Tom agrees to bring a “gentleman caller” home for Laura, who is reclusive, withdrawn into her own world populated by her glass figurines. Jim O’Connor accompanies Tom home one night, a night for which Amanda pulls out all the stops and spares no expense, though their resources are limited.

After a rocky start, Jim, with his big aspirational personality (though he, too, is a character wounded by life), puts Laura at ease to the point where possibilities seem to glimmer in her future. She admits to having had a crush on him in high school, where he was quite a big deal. There’s even a spark between them. But, alas, it’s not to be, as Jim has a girl, Betty, he will soon marry.

Jim excuses himself early, leaving Amanda to attack Tom for the joke he played on Laura and herself. Of course, he didn’t know Jim was about to be married, because Jim had not announced it in the factory. It’s the final row for Tom who leaves never to return. However, as his final words reveal, he really can never leave; the memory of Laura haunts him over distance and time.

While only the barest of bones, hopefully you can see just own psychologically complex Williams’s play is. It’s also filled with interesting features, some of which audiences never see, as directors omit them as clumsy, redundant, even condescending. The most prominent of these is the screen that displays key ideas that the characters pretty much speak almost immediately. The others are the cinematic quality of the piece that include explicit key lighting direction and music cues.

For those who would like to see the play performed, you will find the 1973 television adaptation particularly good. It stars Katharine Hepburn as Amanda, Sam Waterston as Tom, Joanna Miles as Laura, and Michael Moriarty as Tom. w/c

Meet Yourself, Family, and Friends on Stage

Our Town (Perennial Classics Edition)

By Thornton Wilder

Novels, films, dance, and plays at their most basic help us understand ourselves, put our lives into perspective, and most of all show us that we are not alone; that regardless of our age, our nationality, our position in life, we are, when reduced to the most elemental aspects of living, more alike than different. Few works accomplish this better and in the simplest way imaginable than Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Populated with archetypes, or representations, of ourselves, it is a play about every one of us.

In structure, it spans the progression of our lives: Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Dying. Each of the three acts presents the ordinariness of life, which, as we learn in the end, can be quite extraordinary, the very essence of living, if we pause occasionally to relish them. Of course, as Emily realizes in the end, we rarely, if ever, do. The terrible sadness here is that we miss so much, as those of a certain age will attest; the hope is that we will pay more attention.

The action in the play is the routine of living, routine that even today mimics in general terms how we go about living our lives. The characters aren’t what we would consider fully fleshed individuals; they are frameworks upon which we can drape our own experiences, the outlines of people who may remind us of acquaintances, of events that transpired in our own lives and our families. Yes, situations and families and people may seem different from these early 20th century New Englanders, but Wilder has drawn them broadly enough so that we see that while we might be different we also share much. This accounts for the fact that troupes have successfully performed Our Town around the world and regularly since its first performance in 1938 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ.

You’ll find this volume a particularly good one to own. It begins with a brief introduction by David Margulies, a playwright himself and prof at Yale, that puts you in a frame of mind to enjoy and get the most from the play. In an afterword by Tappan Wilder, Thornton’s nephew, provides insights into the play and excepts from Thornton’s correspondence and discussions of the play. w/c

Tracy Letts’s Early Killer Comedy

Killer Joe (Letts, Friedkin, 2011/12)

From the play by Tracy Letts

In 2006, William Friedkin directed Tracy Letts’s Bug from Letts’s screenplay (a must-see dark comedy about contagious paranoid dementia). That worked out so well, they paired again to bring Letts’s first play (staged first in 1993, Chicago) to the screen. You’ll find it quite something to behold, a showcase for Letts’s ability to pull some of our species worst traits front and center, portray their offensiveness vividly, and then have us look at them aghast while tittering as tempers flare and blood flies—well, his is a special talent, indeed.

Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), a no account and inveterate gambler, owes $6,000. He can’t pay it and is desperate, as a loan shark has threatened to kill him. He begs his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), for the money. However, dad is even more of a deadbeat than he is. Chris then reveals that his mother, his father’s ex, has a life insurance policy that will pay $50,000. He pitches the idea of contracting mom’s death. Dad sees the merit in it without asking the source of the information. Dottie (Juno Temple, who really captures the essence of Dottie), Chris’s sister, of whom he is protective, overhears the conversation. She’s 20, an innocent, a virgin, who longs for escape from her situation. She endorses it as a good idea. Dad’s second wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), joins in as well, while constantly berating Chris as a moron. Obviously, nobody much likes mom. More obvious, Chris has given the murder of his mother some thought, as he has the likely executioner lined up. That is Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey, buttoned up and terrific), a police detective with a hitman sideline.

As you might guess, the Smith family is a collection of dim bulbs, ne’er-do-wells who lack even the ability to dream big. Letts plays up every bad trait they possess with both caricature and their casual acceptance of the idea of murdering mommy. Naturally, being as mentally dull as they are, they overlook a few very important details that set the stage for an ending worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy; that is, bloody.

Of these characters, many will find Joe the most fascinating. While the family is disheveled and dumb and always in disarray, Joe is tailored in his dress, respectful in his demeanor, clear in his thinking and communication. Behind the façade of correctness you sense lurks a different person. You would think such as man would steer clear of the Smiths. He would have, too, had he not caught a glimpse of adorable Dottie and decided he wanted her as the Smiths’s retainer in lieu of the payment they did not have. Plenty of weirdness stems from Joe’s fateful decision.

If you enjoy the film, you might like to read the play Killer Joe. Or, perhaps you might read the play first and see how the various performances correspond with your conceptualization of the characters. You’ll notice that the film expands somewhat on the play, including the loan shark and his minions, and moving scenes out of the trailer. Otherwise, the film is the written play brought to life. w/c

A Life, in Bits and Pieces

Mary Page Marlowe

A New Play by Tracy Letts

Some may not immediately recognize the name Tracy Letts. However, you probably know him if you’ve watched Homeland, where he played Senator and then CIA Director Andrew Lockhart, The Big Short with Letts as Lawrence Fields, or any number of other TV shows and films. In addition to films and television, Letts is also an award-winning playwright and a screenwriter. In 2008, he won the Tony Award for Best Play for August: Osage County. In 2013, he won a Tony again, this time for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And three of his plays (Killer Joe, Bug, and August: Osage County) have been filmed, with Letts writing the screen adaptations.

Now he has a new, exciting play on the main stage of the renowned Chicago regional theatre, Steppenwolf. With companions, we saw Mary Page Marlowe in previews one week before its formal opening, and highly recommend it to you if you will be in the Chicago area during its run. (See Steppenwolf for dates and times.) Mary Page Marlowe will probably make its way to Broadway, as other Letts plays have, and perhaps even to film, especially as it offers terrific roles for an ensemble of female actors.

Mary Page Marlowe presents the life of Mary Page at various stages of her life. These moments range from pivotal to the mundane stuff of life, from infancy to moments before her death. The settings are as middle America as you can get, southern Ohio and Kentucky. The timeframe is from the Korean War to the present.

Mary Page is nobody special. She does nothing extraordinary in her life. She works at various jobs. She makes bad marriage choices. She carries on affairs. She has children. In short, she mirrors America today and Americans. Hers is a life in bits and pieces and the extraordinary thing about the play is that it reveals Mary Page in bits and pieces, as a jigsaw puzzle we, the audience, are left to assemble in our minds as her story jumps back and forth in her life. This technique, also, as you will discover, makes for some very poignant moments, as you recall things about her life while watching the current episode. 

Good art illuminates life and helps us think about our place in the world. It can also show us aspects of life we may never experience ourselves in such ways that we add to our understanding of the diversity of life that, if we allow it, can personally enrich our own awareness. As Letts’s new play demonstrates, every life is a great story arc, from birth to death, filled with dramatic highs and lows. A strength of the play is that it offers us an ordinary person, someone whom we can relate to, because Mary Page is very much like us, our friends, and our family. She, along with her experiences, is a mirror into which we can project ourselves and have reflected back meaning in our own lives. And like real life, which seems much too short, you wish it could go on longer than its trim ninety-minute running time.

From a stagecraft standpoint, its numerous scene changes make it feel more cinematic than life played out in a framed box. Todd Rosenthal’s design shifts scenes smoothly by employing platforms that roll on and off the stage pre-filled with props and actors. Everything happens quickly and flawlessly, so each scene change occurs almost like a scene cut on film. It’s really something to behold, especially when you consider that scenic design can be quite static in the usual play. At the end, you may find yourself commenting, as we did, that the play could easily translate to film, since in many ways it runs like a film.

Another notable feature is the many actresses playing Mary Page at various stages of her life, from college girl, to young wife, to mature wife, and everything in-between, six actors and six iterations of Mary Page Marlowe. While this may sound like it might be jarring, it’s anything but. It enhances Mary Page’s story as each actor adds her own nuance to Mary at the different stages of her life. (In the previews, there were even three revolving infant Mary Pages. But they were dropped from the show as they proved a bit distracting for the audience, and, possibly, the actors.)

If we gave star ratings, we’d give this five. As it is, if you live in or are visiting Chicago, we urge you to get tickets before Mary Page Marlowe moves on. It’s an amazing ninety-minutes of live theatre. w/c

Steinbeck Fans: Be in Chicago This Fall

East of Eden

By John Steinbeck

This fall, the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company brings a new adaptation of John Steinbeck’s epic family saga East of Eden to the stage. Founded in 1974 by Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry, and H.E. Baccus, the company has developed into one of the most respected and innovative theaters in the U.S. Even if you do not live in Chicago, you probably know it as the birthing stage for many successful and honored Broadway productions, among them Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County and Frank Galati’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, which went on to win the 1990 Tony for Best Play. That’s relevant here because Galati and Terry Kinney are the creative force behind the new adaptation of East of Eden.

To learn more about Steppenwolf, the theater’s principals, and its new season, including East of Eden, click here. For Playbill’s blurb on the play, click here. To refresh yourself on what Steinbeck called his best novel, read our previously published review that follows. And if you will find yourself in Chicago in the fall, think about tickets (at Chicago prices, we might add, typically half what you will pay should it make its way to Broadway).

Where do you begin with East of Eden, for it offers the reader a bounty of pleasures and ideas to contemplate? The beautiful tone of the prose flows along like a gentle breeze, while increasing the intensity of dramatic moments. Steinbeck’s characters, as they always do, capture you, but even more so in this magnum opus, in particular Samuel Hamilton, the polymath progenitor from whom Olive and then John Steinbeck descended (the novel contains autobiographical elements), a man you wish you could spend an hour or two with; Lee, the highly educated, very wise, completely unassuming Trask housekeeper and companion, who gives rise to the central, hopeful theme of the novel, summed up in the Hebrew word timshel (thou mayest, Steinbeck’s translation in support of the theme of choosing between good and evil); and Cal Trask, self-aware of the potential for evil and good within him, probably the most dimensional character in the vast cast. Steinbeck renders the epic, sequential story arcs of good versus evil, with permutations, on the most personal level of family, in a way we can feel and identify with. Yes, East of Eden is his greatest novelistic achievement, among the greatest family sagas of any century, and one of the best American novels by any American writer, and the best because, put plainly, it is a pleasure and inspiration to read. If you haven’t read it, please do yourself a favor and do so now.

You’ll also find the novel timeless. After all, don’t we all still struggle with good and evil; don’t we all yet make choices that lead us down paths we wish we did not find ourselves treading; don’t we all yearn to turn our lives around at some point but wonder how to do so? If only we had a Samuel or Lee to nudge and guide us; if only we could grasp our plight and wrestle our nature into obedience as Cal will. Well, at least you’ll know you are not alone; you’ll know you’re just human.

As you read the novel, and perhaps critiques of it as well, you’ll find the central theme to be that a person has it in his or her power to choose between good and evil. Adam and his son Aron are the symbols, the suffering symbols, of good. Charles, Adam’s brother, and Cathy, Adam’s wife, are evil, and choose to be such. Cal, who possesses evil tendencies, recognizes his predilection to evil. He strives mightily to choose to be good. But we ‘d add that Steinbeck might be also telling us that with each generation we trend more to the good, making the individual struggle more hopeful. You’ll see this vividly illustrated in Cal, who appears to have descended from Cathy and Charles.

Finally, should you explore information on the novel, you’ll discover that readers have pulled many quotes from East of Eden. It’s that kind of novel, a place to find any number of thoughts meaningful to you and your life. This passage, which we haven’t seen quoted, struck us the moment we read it. It demonstrates Steinbeck’s keen understanding of the American character, a summation well worth keeping in mind today. Lee addresses Cal after a devastating turn in the story (page 568, Penguin Centennial Edition):

“We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed–selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful–we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic–and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture?”

Highly recommended as a vital, brilliant masterwork that will never lose it relevancy, as well as for its superb style. It will be interesting to see how Galati and Kinney bring the essence of the novel to life on stage. w/c

Power of Live Theater in a Small Box

Dancing with Death (I) (1900)

By August Strindberg

When most of us think of live theater, Broadway probably comes to mind first, followed by lavish musicals, and then dramas. These could be on Broadway itself or tours visiting towns near you. Some familiar with smaller venues may not think of them as professional theater for whatever reason, perhaps simply because the spaces are small and what the heck can you do in a tiny space? And when we say small, we mean seating for 100 or fewer people.

However, small venues with professional troupes can provide you with the most powerful theater experience you’ll ever have. The reason: small venues put you virtually in the middle of the action. It’s as if you are a guest in each scene.

Imagine for a moment being between a warring couple dredging up every offense and ill feeling they have toward the other built up over the span of their 25-year marriage, then engaging in some outlandish behavior, and then pulling a visitor into the battle. Sounds like dinner at the outcast brother-in-law’s last Sunday, doesn’t it?

Recent personal experience brings this topic to mind; specifically, a truly stellar staging and performance of August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death (I). (There is a II that’s not nearly as good and, thus, rarely performed.)

Envision for a moment Hell as a viciously bad and eternal marriage, an unrelenting war between partners yearning for release, nearly achieving that release only to be pulled back into the marriage for another spin on the dance floor of mutual abuse.

There, in a nutshell, you have Strindberg’s often-produced, greatly admired, and quite influential The Dance of Death (I). Should you ever have the opportunity to see it performed, especially in a very small, good theater, seize it, for it is more than a play; it is an experience. That’s because you’ll feel as if you are in Edgar and Alice’s sitting room witnessing the most savage exchanges between marital partners. To put a finer, more modern point on it, it will be like tagging along with George and Martha as they drunkenly thrash each other in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play informed by Strindberg’s.

Should this all sound off-putting and dreary to you, realize Strindberg had a gift for injecting humor into the most dire of circumstances. It’s of the very black type that makes you titter with personal knowledge, or embarrassment, or gratitude you are not his inspiration, especially if those inspirations are playing out the drama at your very feet.

On the subject of man and woman together in marriage, in the war between man and woman, he knew of what he wrote. The man managed to alienate three wives (marriages resulting in five children, a boy and four girls). His genius, though, and sharply tuned radar for hypocrisy allowed him a clear view of the relationship and legal problems of his day regarding marriage, divorce, and child custody, all reflected in this play.

As for the play, it concerns Edgar, an old army officer, and his wife Alice, a thwarted actress, on the cusp of celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. They live on an island quarantine station (common in the period to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in the time before antibiotics). In the small space we saw this in, a space seating 50 people, the design matched up exactly to Strindberg’s direction, and the detail and costumes were such you felt yourself trapped in the dungeon of a room with the pair.

Beyond the window of the room is the station. Though it and a garrison occupy the island, Edgar and Alice aren’t very popular, particularly Edgar. The result is no friends and even greater isolation.

Edgar speaks constantly of dying, that being his escape hatch from the marriage. Alice continually demonstrates her bitterness about her marriage to him and what he forced her to give up. They have children who do not live with them because they each turned the children against the other. Thus, they find themselves locked in constant warfare, unable to give each other up, except, of course, with the final release of death.

Alice does see a chance at freedom when her cousin Kurt shows up, the very cousin who introduced the pair. In Edgar’s absence, their liking for each other devolves into an all out sexual assault upon each other (quite the spectacle when you are practically in the middle of it, as we were), with Alice seeing Kurt as her salvation. Kurt , however, comes to his senses, leaves them, and they go on as before.

We’ve seen other plays in very small venues. Even when they are not as strong as The Dance of Death (I), the closeness serves to amplify the impact.

So, if you’ve not been to a play in a small venue, open up the Sunday arts section of your print or electronic newspaper and find one. You’ll be happy you saw theater in a small box. c/w