Working class heroes? Chicago theaters speak for the poor

January 24, 2011



Some people called the Chicago theater of the early ‘70s “rock ‘n’ roll,” some called it “scratch ‘n’ sniff.”  But I always preferred “groan ‘n’ grunt,” because the most memorable of the shows featured people who could barely express themselves–at least in words. 

True West and In the Belly of the Beast are long gone, but their spirit lives on in a trio of excellent shows that opened last week.  Port portrays the life of poor Liverpudlians seeking a means of escape from their narrow and squalid lives in England.  The Beauty Queen of Leenane portrays the life of poor Irish people seeking a means of escape from their narrow and squalid lives in England and Ireland.  Lakeboat portrays the life of poor ethnics seeking a means of escape from their narrow and squalid lives hauling steel on Lake Michigan.

More than the similarities in their settings, though, the plays are marked by the similarities in their speech patterns.  The dialogue in Port and Beauty Queen consists of half-sentences that drift off or end with the interrogative “So?” which seems to reflect the essential futility of speech.  The dialogue in Lakeboat reflects that same futility in half-sentences studded with profanity, from which you can correctly infer that this is a Mamet play.

Playwrights face a particular challenge in trying to let an audience in on the thoughts and emotions of inarticulate characters.  Everything has to be done by suggestion and indirection, whereas Tom Stoppard and Rebecca Gilman and Sarah Ruhl can work directly through their highly-educated and self-aware characters. 

But that challenge is the secret of these plays’ appeal to small Chicago theaters.  They’re feasts for actors because they require all the weapons in their arsenal: not just voice and vocal expression, but every muscle in their faces and every position of their bodies.  Indeed, the most memorable moment in Lakebook is one character’s vividly mimed description of his first sexual experience, while The Beauty Queen of Leenane features explosions of physical violence which say way more about the quality of the lives portrayed than the characters’ discussions of television shows, comparisons of cookie quality or debates about the emptying of bedpans into the kitchen sink.

So the recent surge of plays with inarticulate characters–specifically, poor and working-class people who don’t have the vocabulary to describe the ways in which life is taking it out of them–may mean nothing more than that such work is catnip to actors.  But it’s also reasonable to speculate, as we drag our way through Year III of the Great Recession while the public conversation continues to be about economic indicators which have no effect on joblessness, that community-based Chicago theaters feel the need to speak for the community–and that the community is poorer and more ground down with every year that goes by.  If things go on this way, the biggest competition in town will be for the rights to portray the grindingly poor family of Buried Child.

Credit where it’s due: each of these shows requires, and receives, a true ensemble production.  Griffin Theatre’s U.S. premiere of Port (at the Raven Theatre space in Edgewater) includes the company’s patented youthful high energy, perfect for a play taking place between the protagonist’s 10th and 23rd  years.  Caroline Neff, the lead in last year’s A Brief History of Helen of Troy, gives another extraordinary performance, and the difficult North-Country accents are handled extremely well.  Kudos to director Jonathan Berry and his company.

Beauty Queen of Leenane marks the return of the Shattered Globe ensemble, whose financial troubles in the past few years left it down but, palpably, not out.  Steve Scott, Associate Producer of the Goodman, directs this tale of a mother and daughter locked in a death grip with due emphasis on the comedy as well as the horror of Martin McDonagh’s script.  Linda Reiter has the showiest role as the curmudgeonly mother, and does it to a fare-thee-well, but she’s merely first among equals in a strong ensemble.  The show didn’t seem quite as sharp to me as in its Gift Theatre production of several years back, but that may be because its plot twist can only blow you completely away the first time you see it.   Certainly it’s a triumphant return for a fine company.

And Steep Theatre’s production of Lakeboat plays to the company’s strength in male ensemble performance.  In a tiny promenade that nonetheless succeeds in evoking shipboard (thanks to set designer Dan Stratton and sound designer Miles Polaski), G.J. Cederquist directs the nine men through Mamet’s coarse but loving portrait of people trying to make meaning out of meaninglessness and happiness out of making do.  Sean Bolger plays the most articulate of the grunting crew with the perfect balance of rough and tender.  And Eric Roach’s fabulously physical narration of losing his virginity may be the absolutely definitive version of that old old story.

PHOTO CREDIT: Joseph Wiens (Pato) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Photo by Kevin Viol.