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Chicago by John Olson

The Detective's Wife
Writers' Theatre

Also see John's review of Bug

The Detective's Wife
Barbara Robertson
With Chicago playwright Keith Huff's A Steady Rain having been produced on Broadway with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in its two roles, there's much interest in his The Detective's Wife, now in its world premiere production at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. Huff says it's the second piece in a loose trilogy of "Chicago Cop plays." While the new play—a one character drama performed by the reliable Chicago actress Barbara Robertson—is entertaining and always watchable, it's all over the place in its combination of crime mystery, fantasy, and family comedy/drama. We keep hoping it will all come together in some logical manner, but it doesn't, and as a result the play feels unsatisfying.

Huff's yarn is about the wife, widow actually, of a Chicago police detective who at the start of her narrative tells the audience that her husband was inexplicably murdered in the course of investigating a twenty-year-old series of fatal sexual assaults. The woman, Alice Conroy, explains that she woke up in the middle of the night knowing husband Jim had been killed—even before being notified by department officials of his death. This late night vision is the first of many communications from the beyond she tells us about, and the easiest to believe. Later, Alice tells us that Jim's ghost has logged on to his home computer and into the police department's server to print out detailed reports of his investigation so that Alice, an inveterate reader of mysteries, will be able to determine who shot him. Alice—who appears to be intelligent and well-read beyond the 14,000-plus mystery novels she tells us she's devoured—makes frequent references to Shakespeare's Hamlet. She compares the people in her life to its characters, particularly her husband who, like King Hamlet, spoke to his son from the grave and implored him to avenge his death. The first of two acts moves along nicely to set up the premise and give Alice a basis for investigating the crime, but she seems to abandon her search as the second act opens. Huff then focuses on her personal life—her relationship with her children and her re-entry into the world of dating. She comments on her homemaking abilities, comparing herself to the heroine of TV "Donna Reed Show." The action does eventually turn back to the crimes, but when the mystery is finally solved, it's not from her sleuthing, really. The solution just presents itself and the conflict is resolved in an improbable manner.

Huff gives Alice a detached, bemused voice that works against our caring about the character and her grief as much as we might. For ninety minutes of stage time, she recounts the story in a sardonic tone, mocking the police department and her family more than she lets us in on her feelings. Her husband's death was clearly traumatic—it even took away her ability to speak to others. Though her narration is spoken to the audience, she communicates with the people in her life through writing notes or texting. She's smart, funny, strong and likable. We don't tire of her, thanks to Robertson's both tough and charming performance under Gary Griffin's solid direction, but Huff doesn't give us much with which to feel her grief.

Huff does a mostly good job of capturing a Chicago feeling. The crimes Alice's husband is investigating—a series of sexual assaults and murders of young boys—evoke memories of notorious Chicago killers like John Wayne Gacy, Richard Speck, and Loeb and Leopold. He believably sets the action in the Edgebrook neighborhood—a suburb-like enclave within the city limits popular with cops, teachers and other public employees who are required to live in the city. Huff loses just a little credibility in placing Jim's murder at a neighborhood movie theater in the once rundown (now slowly gentrifying) Uptown—a neighborhood which has not had a working movie theater in some 30 years.

The handsome production design includes Kevin Depinet's set of piles of mystery novels stacked on and suspended above the stage, and projections by Mike Tutaj showing Alice's notes, various documents and photos. There's also an Elmer Bernstein-esque musical score by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen to help set the mood.

There are a lot of good ideas in The Detective Wife's, but maybe that's because they've worked so well in Hamlet, Ghost, Law and Order and Murder, She Wrote. If Huff can come up with a way to focus the piece and give us something beyond homage to these sources, he might have something. Right now, it's pretty much just a first draft.

The Detective's Wife will play through July 31, 2011 at Writers' Theatre, 664 Vernon Ave., in Glencoe, IL. The box office is located at 376 Park Avenue, Glencoe. Tickets are also available by phone at 847-242-6000 or online at www.writerstheatre.org.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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