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Chicago by John Olson

Ten Chimneys
Northlight Theatre

Also see John's review of Camino Real

Ten Chimneys
V. Craig Heidenreich and Lia Mortenson
They were regarded as "the greatest acting team in the history of the English-speaking theatre," according to the memorial at their gravesite. Indeed, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne are becoming legends in the strictest definition of the word—increasingly fewer people are living who could have seen them perform live and, as they chose to work almost exclusively on stage rather in films or TV, the opportunities to see their performances in those media are limited. So in the same way we know of Edwin Booth, Edmund Kean and Laurette Taylor, we must simply trust that they were as great as they are said to have been. But even apart from their abilities as actor, there's something fascinating about the story of this couple, who for the entire 55 years of their marriage, would only accept acting assignments in which they could act together as a team. Adding to the allure of their story is the knowledge that Lunt—ever the epitome of sophistication and a bearing that matched that of his British born wife—was a native of the quintessentially working class Midwestern city of Milwaukee, and that the two summered just outside the Beer City in a estate that eventually became known as Ten Chimneys.

Jeffrey Hatcher's play, which premiered in January 2011 in a production by the Arizona Theatre Company, supposes what might have happened during a few days in 1937 as the Lunts began to rehearse a Broadway-bound production of Chekhov's The Seagull at that summer home in the Wisconsin town of Genesee Depot. It was common for the two to rehearse during the summer—the play makes it clear Lunt and Fontanne were completely obsessed with acting and were most fully engaged with each other when running scenes or performing. Yet it appears that's nearly all they ever did, and that they gained more enjoyment from that pastime than ordinary couples find in any number of activities. They frequently summoned castmates to Genesee Depot (at the time of this play, the estate was not yet named nor did it yet have ten chimneys) for rehearsal. Their co-stars in The Seagull included an 18-year-old Uta Hagen (who would similarly become a stage legend with scant recordings of her performances) and Sydney Greenstreet, whom we know well from his roles as a villain in the Humphrey Bogart films Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. Also at the estate were Lunt's mother Hattie, who lived there year-round, and his half-siblings Louise and Carl, who served as its caretakers.

As a backstage comedy, Ten Chimneys is irresistible. We can only imagine what it must have been like to live as a Lunt, particularly when summering in a charming country estate hosting visitors like Noël Coward (who is not seen, but is frequently mentioned in the play). Hatcher has crafted his real-life subjects into stage-worthy characters, and they're brought to life crisply in the hands of this uniformly strong cast and B.J. Jones' sharp direction. Fontanne (Lia Mortenson) is ever the diva, fancying herself the most interesting person in the room, but somehow remaining rather likable in spite of it all. She's self-confident enough not to need the approval of others but simply assumes she has it, blithely un-self-aware and all the happier for it. She has a sharp wit, which is more than matched by Lunt's flamboyant mother Hattie (Linda Kimbrough). Lunt's long-suffering half-sister Louise, married to an oft-absent husband and treated like a housekeeper by Fontanne, lacks the verbal wit of Hattie or Lynn, but in Janet Ulrich Brooks' pitch-perfect performance, she reacts dryly to the large egos around her. Louise and brother Carl (played as a smart if unlucky guy by Lance Baker) are struggling to control resentment of their rich and famous half-brother even as they enjoy the benefits of their association with him.

Lunt is played with jovial regality by V. Craig Heidenreich, who adopts a patrician air quite atypical of a born and bred Milwaukeean (a statement I feel qualified to make as a native of that city). You suspect Lunt was tempted to adopt Fontanne's native British accent, but stopped just short of such pretense. Heidenreich creates a distinctive posture and physical movement for Lunt that is a little repetitive and transparent but effective nonetheless. Sara Griffin is the too-serious for her 18 years Uta Hagen. Steve Pringle creates in Greenstreet perhaps the most normal and sympathetic character of the whole bunch, a kind, gentle man in deep pain over the condition of his mentally ill wife, confined to an institution in the nearby town of Oconomowoc.

The play's minimal plot has the young Miss Hagen revealing her crush on Lunt, a display of affection which makes the leading man quite uncomfortable—certainly in part because he's married, but also because he may be gay. Fontanne feels threatened when she sees Hagen's advances on Lunt, but not as threatened as when she learns that Alfred has just visited a male friend from college with whom he might have had an affair. Hatcher neither affirms nor contests the rumors of Lunt and Fontanne's sexual orientations (there were rumors they were both gay), but simply presents the inconclusive evidence that exists on the question. There's a subplot concerning some gambling debts of half-brother Carl as well as a thread about Greenstreet's visits to his wife and what will ultimately become of her.

Hatcher has apparently been meticulous in his research. So far as I can tell, his facts surrounding the lives of the real people depicted on and off stage are accurate and his many Wisconsin references all rang true to this native of the Badger State. Tom Burch's set, depicting the interior and exterior of the studio building on the estate has apparently been modeled after the real thing, which is open for tours from late May through mid-November. Surely, visitors to Ten Chimneys must fantasize about the rehearsals and conversations that occurred on that estate and Ten Chimneys the play works in that way. While it seems about to end long before it does (there's a final scene occurring seven years later, after the end of World War II that wraps up all the stories a bit too flatly), its meaty and funny characters, performed as expertly as they are by this cast, makes Ten Chimneys a most enjoyable peek behind the curtain at the legendary Lunts.

Ten Chimneys will be performed through April 15, 2012, at Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL .Tickets are available by phone at 847-673-6300, at the box office, or online at northlight.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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