Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Scientists (and by "scientists," of course, I mean "men") have long speculated on a parallel universe of "women's hearts," operating on unseen, unknowable rules of female emotions in response to apparently insignificant events, rather than running on the good old laws of physics. And here, Mr. O'Morrison's play gives us a fuller, more sympathetic glimpse of that invisible parallel universe than any other play I've ever seen, including those written by women themselves, set in any time period you might care to mention.
Ladyhouse Blues sends us back to World War I, where we meet four sisters, beginning with Helen, played with unnervingly raw emotion by Allison Courtney Hoppe. She's a tuberculosis patient who has escaped from an Arkansas sanitarium for desperate reasons that will be revealed much, much later. Carli Miller is Eylie, the youngest: drunk with power over her newfound ability to win diners' tips, gyrating her hips in a greasy spoon. Valerie Jean Waters is another daughter, Dot, married into an important family in New York, visiting while pregnant. And last but far from least, Emily Strembicki marches on as the Teryy, passionately, delightfully devoted to the struggle for workers' rights. All four actresses do great work under the sensitive direction of Steve Callahan.
The fascinating Kim Furlow makes Ma Madden young enough to understand her daughters' temporary bouts of insanity and their behind-the-scenes plotting. And, for the sake of drama, she expertly manages to barely manage events. Even the youngest daughter seems to have just the right balance of self-deception and salesmanship to keep her own subplot alive (though, as with all of the other women, her own true love never actually appears on stage). Each woman is well anchored in the heart of the story, with Ms. Hoppe (as Helen) being the most impressive, in her character's impossible plight. And, not surprisingly, the play takes an entirely new direction in act two, when all of these disparate women are forced onto the same page at last.
The one and only smallish thing that bothers me about this very engrossing period piece is the occasional slip into standard theatricality, as when straightforward conversation gives way to the old, familiar star-turn moment. Now and then, somebody has to make a life-assessment, and when they do, it's almost always as if a powerful spotlight had suddenly flared on her for some anthemic moment. As I recall, each woman gets a turn in this imaginary spotlight, usually resulting in what critics of Ethel Merman labelled "Star Eyes": roaming out over the audience's heads, as if the others on stage had simply ceased to exist. It's just about the only thing wrong in this otherwise splendid production. Ms. Waters, as Dot, fares in this regard: making the character's confessions of a troubled life part of her direct conversation with her family.
Those star-turn moments could easily have slipped by unnoticed, as they do in nearly every other play on every other stage in town, were it not for a heady sense of reality that pervades everything on stage, including the operating kitchen sink. A steady march of period costumes, and a stage full of period furniture covered in myriad antique housewares brainwash us more successfully than any other play in recent memory. Add on a half dozen or so lovely old songs (including "In The Gloaming" and "Jada") sung sweetly by the actresses and you may be tempted to stay in your seat during intermission, so as not to break the spell.
It's not all Marian Paroo or Dolly Gallagher Levi, though. A lot of the humor, and reverberating social commentary, comes from the casual xenophobia, against any and all ethnicities and backgrounds, save for good old Scots-Irish. It's sort of amazing to think how far we've come, before all of our awful back-sliding in recent years.
Through June 27th at the black box theater at Fontbonne University, Big Bend and Wydown Blvds. For ticket information, call Metrotix at (314) 534-1111 or visit Act Inc. online at www.actinc.biz.