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Chicago by John Olson

The Hot L Baltimore
Steppenwolf Theatre

Also see John's review of White Noise

The Hot L Baltimore
Allison Torem and Jon Michael Hill
As the program notes point out, Steppenwolf owes a great debt to playwright Lanford Wilson. Their 1980 production of his Balm in Gilead was one of their early productions that put their six-year-old company on the map. First produced at the company's then-home a 134-seat space in the Jane Addams Hull House Center on Halsted St., it was remounted in New York in 1984, winning national attention and acclaim for the young company. I didn't see that production, though I saw the terrific Hypocrites production in a similarly intimate space some 10 years ago, an experience I suspect might have been similar to what Steppenwolf's 1980 audiences must have felt. Wilson's 1974 play The Hot L Baltimore has much in common with Balm in Gilead. It's a realistic look at a group of marginalized urban Americans sharing the same space. Balm's characters are a collection of junkies and street people hanging out in a coffee shop on New York's yet-to-be gentrified Upper West Side, while Hot L's are the low-income residents of a Baltimore flophouse, crossing paths in the lobby of a once-respectable hotel. Such places still exist, of course, but Steppenwolf has moved on up in the past 30 years, and their Hot L Baltimore has seemingly no shortage of money or talent.

The set by James Schuette creates an amazingly detailed lobby—water stained wallpaper and all—on a first level. There's a second level revealing several of the tiny rooms the guests inhabit, space which director Tina Landau uses to have the characters pantomiming the action implied in the script that the characters would be doing while offstage. The fourteen-person cast, mostly Steppenwolf ensemble members plus some guests, is uniformly strong, giving us a look at the real people that exist beyond the surface-level appearances of the sorts of unfortunates many well-healed theatergoers might prefer not to meet in real life. This is perhaps where this Hot L, in spite of all its talent and best intentions, disappoints. The production is just so big and contained in a neat proscenium space that we are too removed from the action and characters to be moved. And, as fine as the actors and performances are, knowing most of the cast members so well from previous Steppenwolf productions, regular audiences, at least, are reminded by their familiarity that this is only a play. Seeing this Hot L in a gritty basement space with a cast of unknowns would probably be an easier way to more fully connect with its residents.

That said, the performances do create significant sympathy for the characters, mostly for the half of the roles that Wilson most fully fleshed out. As the tough, realistic hooker April (the role created by Conchata Ferrell on stage and in the TV series based on the play), de'Adre Aziza is the focus of the play. She's more self-aware than any of them. Fully cognizant of the crummy station in life they all have, yet maintaining her dignity, she helps the others find strength amidst their own calamities and the impending demolition of the hotel that is home to them all. Aziza gives a powerful performance and it probably helps that she's not such a familiar face on the Steppenwolf stage. April's fellow hooker Suzy is played effectively by Kate Arrington as a naf, vulnerable but hopeful for a better life. Alana Arenas is Jackie, the protective big sister of the possibly mentally challenged teenager Jamie (a sensitive portrayal by Namir Smallwood). Arenas gives Jackie a determination to find a better place for both of them, even as she makes some bad choices in doing so. TaRon Patton is absolutely heartbreaking as Mrs. Oxenham, the impoverished mother trying to convince the hotel manager (James Vincent Meredith) to let her mentally ill and alcoholic son continue to live at the hotel. When he refuses, she's left to take his possessions back to her home—a daunting task of somehow carting the small roomful of stuff by city bus, as she has no car. Steppenwolf company member Molly Regan is lovely as the sweet elderly Millie, and Allison Torem gives a fascinating and energetic performance as the teenage hooker called "The Girl" who's most engaged with and concerned about her neighbors at the hotel. Jon Michael Hill, Yasen Peyankov, Jeremy Glickstein and Samuel Taylor and Jacqueline Williams are all fine in smaller roles. In a part that was not in the original production—here called "The Man" but who is apparently the ghost of a departed resident—Sean Allan Krill moves gracefully and gets to sing a duet with Molly Regan.

The Hot L Baltimore has a lot going on among its 14 characters, as people come and go, speak over each other, and interrupt conversations. Director Landau hasn't quite found a rhythm for the script, and that makes it harder to focus on the piece. Further, she's taken a busy play and made it even busier—with the action going on in the rooms upstairs and adding background music that includes vocals that interfere with the dialogue.

If this Hot L Baltimore is less than the sum of its considerable parts, the fault is that there's just too much of it. Steppenwolf and Landau have given the play everything they have in this staging—and it may all be more than this play can bear.

The Hot L Baltimore will run through May 29, 2011, at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. For tickets, visit the box office, www.steppenwolf.org, or call 312-335-1550.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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