Kate Fry, Mark L. Montgomery, Scott Parkinson and Sean Fortunato in Hedda Gabler at Writers Theatre; photo Michael Brosilow
Here’s the main reason theater critics are useful: because we see five or six shows in a row, we’re in a position to pick out the ones which are truly superior, as opposed to the ones which are merely okay. The overall quality of Chicago theater is so high that you’re likely to have an acceptable experience wherever you go. But if you only go to the theater once a week (or once a month or, God forbid, once a year), you don’t want to settle for merely acceptable. That’s where I come in.
Of the six shows I’ve seen this week (pardon me while I pass out on my keyboard), two are truly superior: Kimberly Senior’s production of Hedda Gabler at Writers Theatre and Karen Kessler’s U.S. premiere of Solstice by Zinnie Harris.
Hedda Gabler: Kate Fry is never less than excellent, whether she’s doing a musical like A Minister’s Wife or managing Tom Stoppard’s impossible rhythms in Arcadia, but her Hedda Gabler is still a revelation. The intelligence she brings to every role is honed here to a cutting edge, and her slight coldness is amped up so from the minute she walks onstage you know this woman is bent on destruction—whether of herself or someone else doesn’t much matter. I saw Martha Plimpton do Hedda at Steppenwolf a dozen years ago, and she was duly intimidating, but the source of her rage at the world was never clear—it was like a Scandinavian version of “The Bad Seed.” Under Senior’s direction, we experience the play instead as a companion piece to A Doll’s House: faced with equally oppressive conventional expectations, Nora leaves and lives; Hedda stays and dies.
As her unfortunate husband, Sean Fortunato is suitably mystified by his furiously unhappy bride, while Scott Parkinson plays her bitchy confidante to the hilt. Mark L. Montgomery is a passionate ex-lover, but the moment when he’s goaded by Hedda into his drunken downfall is the one beat in the production which doesn’t quite work. One minute he’s being upright and reformed; the next he’s hell-bent for debauchery, and it’s not clear just what Hedda said to produce the volte-face. It’s the one misstep in an otherwise superlative evening. Jack Magaw’s scenic design (complete with looming portrait of General Gabler, who’s more alive in death than Hedda gets to be in life) and especially Rachel Laritz’s costume design bring us fully into the period without choking us on detail, so as director Senior intends this 19th-Century play feels completely contemporary.
Solstice: Zinnie Harris’s new play is set in an unnamed city described in the program as “Someplace not unlike here.” It’s an utterly desolate environment: someone has just killed and skinned a bride in full view of the entire town, which is divided between the privileged powerful and our protagonists. The dispute seems to be about religion, but soon it comes to be about itself: you killed my friend so I’ll kill yours, ad infinitum (and ad nauseum). The adolescents Sida and Adie find each other in various hideouts in the countryside, while Adie’s parents huddle in front of a wall of icons in their home which has been stripped bare of almost everything else. Somehow director Kessler manages to make brand new this old story of the pointless destructiveness of war: we keep hoping against hope that some reason will reveal itself for the suffering the characters experience and inflict.
As the teenagers, Andrew Cutler and Sarah Price are believably everything: reckless, idealistic, horny, gentle and vicious. Adie’s mother and father, played by Red Orchid ensemble members Kirsten Fitzgerald and Larry Grimm, provide two different and equally authoritative versions of the moral center of the play—though, as we know, the center cannot hold. Solstice is as visceral as Hedda Gabler is cerebral, and just as powerful. Again, the production design creates an environment strange enough to support the plot but familiar enough to keep us from deciding that these events couldn’t happen here; kudos to Joey Wade and Aaron O’Neill (set) and Karen Kawa (costumes).
What else is playing?
Sweet Smell of Success, Kolkandy Productions at Theatre Wit: It’s strange enough to musicalize Alexander McKendrick’s noir classic about a destructive Hollywood gossip columnist and the press agent who sells his soul for the man’s attention. To do so with Marvin Hamlisch—Mr. The-Way-We-Were ultimate romantic—writing the music is out-and-out bizarre. Unsurprising that the only really good songs in the piece are love songs; the rest is dissonant without managing to quite capture the ugliness of the source material. The Kokandy production, directed by John D. Glover, features fine voices but some of the worst choreography ever, all jazz hands and backs turned to the audience.
Our Country’s Good, Shattered Globe at Theatre Wit: Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play about putting on a play in an Australian penal colony benefits from director Roger Smart’s decision to have its many roles performed by a small group of actors who change clothes and personas in full view of the audience. This choice highlights the author’s metafictional intentions without taking us too far away from the immediate dramatic situation pitting civilization against brutality. The play’s intellectual content is liberally leavened with sex, but unfortunately the central relationship seems less sexy than dutiful, almost obligatory.
Out Loud, eta Creative Arts Foundation. Olivia Dawson and Ray Proctor’s new play covers some pretty well-trod terrain: the straight woman and her gay best friend, sharing their joys and fears and frustrations as they seek love and success. The wrinkle is that this particular pair is black. The subject matter may indeed be new to eta’s audience, which skews elderly and which has been nourished for forty years on inspirational stories of the civil rights generation; but it’s not new to anyone who’s watched “Will & Grace.” Watson Swift and Melanie Loren are appealing as the leads, and Nakia Allen and (especially) David Guiden show considerable range as they play all the other parts, but there’s nothing here challenging enough, either intellectually or emotionally, to raise the show above the level of a sitcom.