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Chicago by John Olson

Our Lady of 121st Street

If you start at the Upper West Side diner of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead, head north up Broadway some 40 or 50 blocks then turn right some 30 or 40 years, you can't missOur Lady of 121st Street. Like Wilson's Balm, Stephen Adly Guirgis's play, which ran Off-Broadway in the 2002-03 season and is receiving its Midwest premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre, concerns a number of troubled lower-class denizens of upper Manhattan. Though Our Lady's twelve characters are less desperate than the 1960s patrons of Wilson's late-night diner, they share their difficulties with chemical dependency (alcohol more than drugs) and a general feeling of hopelessness amidst a low-rent New York milieu.

The lady who once gave hope to a few of them is the Lady of the title, the late Sister Rose. They were her elementary school students and they've assembled to attend her wake. Two have escaped to LA and Wisconsin, but all have at least emotional ties to the old Harlem neighborhood. Their visit is extended by the discovery that Sister Rose's body has been stolen and the postponement of the wake until the body is recovered. This gives the characters time to connect, reconnect and reveal their backstories while hanging out in the neighborhood waiting for the wake to begin.

Sister Rose's mourners are both theatrical and believable, giving us insight into a type of community rarely frequented in reality by the average theatergoer. It's a vivid piece of writing, exactly the type of edgy, contemporary work that put Steppenwolf on the map. (In fact, the company's 1981 production of Balm in Gilead is still remembered fondly by Chicago theater writers.) Our Lady;s rich, intriguing characters demand our attention with their energy and earthy speech, and feel original even though the author makes a few easy choices as he reveals secrets of their past which include child abuse, alcoholism, and tragic deaths among their families. Director Will Frears, son of filmmaker Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, My Beautiful Launderette), shares his father's ability to create empathy for the "forgotten" or "invisible" members of society. He gives us an involving, if not entirely satisfying experience.

Our Lady of 121st Street
(l-r) Robert Breuler, E. Milton Wheeler,
Ricardo Gutierrez and Keith Davis

Each of his twelve actors has a meaty role, but Frears gets only a few of them to fully deliver on the opportunities their parts provide. The standout is the only Steppenwolf company member present, Robert Breuler, who plays the reclusive and embittered Father Lux, a self-proclaimed "lousy priest," who lost both his legs in the Korean War. Lux loses his patience as well while hearing the first confession in twenty years of "Rooftop," a minor African-American celebrity who has returned to the neighborhood for the funeral. The priest's hard crust is ultimately broken during the confession as Rooftop's incessant rambling becomes an honest sharing and apparently the first genuine emotional connection the priest has had in years. Breuler earns laughs through his exasperation during the confessional and empathy when he reveals his own history in the second act.

The show demands another eleven actors with nearly that much skill. Although E. Milton Wheeler is highly entertaining as the self-absorbed Rooftop, he seems on autopilot some of the time and has difficulty making believable, if necessarily abrupt, transitions into rage when required. As his remarried ex-wife Inez, Shane Williams has some effective moments, especially when she confronts Rooftop as his attempts to reconcile with her. Sammy A. Publes generates some sympathy as a building superintendent caring for his disabled younger brother, Rebecca Spence is believably quirky as a mysterious mourner and Matt DeCaro is fine as a mourner clad in a business suit sans his trousers, stolen by the body snatchers along with Sister Rose's corpse.

Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey has described the piece as being about the characters' need to achieve some closure on their pasts, but most of this cast seems to have thought little about their characters' back-stories. Frears lets the performers deliver their many long speeches in a Mametian cadence that feels disconnected from their characters' thoughts. They read the lines logically and with a good deal of ethnic and regional color but with such a lack of spontaneity and interpersonal chemistry that their readings sometimes sound more like auditions than performances. Considering the piece and this staging are generally realistic, the performances are frequently too presentational. They show a tendency to overuse volume too much of the time as well.

The neighborhood's beat detective, Balthazar, is pivotal, as he has known most of the characters over the years. He is haunted by the tragic death of his young son and, like many of the others, seems to suffer from alcoholism. Ricardo Gutierrez offers little beyond the script to suggest any more about the man, though, and this seems to leave a big hole at the heart of the play.

Gail (Kevin Christopher Fox) is the gay lover of Flip, an African-American ex-student of Sister Rose. Flip (Keith Davis) is embarrassed by Gail's "exceedingly gay" appearance, an assessment shared by several other characters. However, there is nothing "exceeding gay" in Fox's reading that I noticed. (Okay, his hair was a little big and too well coiffed.) Frears may have been trying to avoid exploitation of gay stereotypes, but he and Fox should have ventured a few miles up Halsted Street to do some research in Chicago's gay neighborhood. They could have enough source material to create an authentic yet inoffensive character. Maybe Frears and Fox thought they were between a rock and a hard place, but to have the text call a character "exceedingly gay" and have the performance fail to communicate that quality is confusing.

Similarly, Eddie Martinez' portrayal of a developmentally disabled youth isn't convincing, primarily relying on hunched shoulders to create the image. Marisabel Suarez' character Norca is apparently Hispanic but it's hard to tell for sure. Maybe Norca was born in a Latin American country from which there's been little immigration to the U.S. Krissy Shields gets some laughs as Sister Rose's high-strung niece but fails to make her mood swings all seem to come from the same person.

Thomas Lynch's realistic set is sensational. Three walls of the funeral home hang over downstage center throughout, just as the memory of Sister Rose dominates the characters. A three-dimensional streetscape including the church, apartment buildings and a business is the backdrop. A full-size grimy bar and a colorfully painted wall of graffiti add texture.

I'll want to see more of Guirgis's work, including another production of this one if I get the chance. I'm already at work mentally casting the movie version, which would be perfect for HBO. I'm thinking Dennis Franz for Balthazar, Will Smith as Rooftop, Audra MacDonald as Inez ... and Robert Breuler as Father Lux.

Our Lady of 121st Street continues at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theater through March 28th. For tickets and performance information, call 312-335-1650 or visit www.Steppenwolf.org or the box office at 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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