Chicago Theatre Review
With More than a Dash of Agony
Ecstasy – Cole Theatre
British playwright and screenwriter Mike Leigh is known for his unflinching, slice-of-life television stories, plays and films that take a look at London’s blue-collar, middle-class society. Films like “Secrets & Lies,” “Topsy-Turvy” and “Vera Drake” are probably his best known works, but Leigh’s two stage plays, which also include the radio drama, “Too Much of a Good Thing,” are both classic Mike Leigh: strong on character but short on plot.
Jean is a young English woman working at an uninspiring job as a gas station attendant and living in northwest London’s less-than-desirable, ethnically diverse Kilburn High Road. From the moment audiences meet this sad, oppressed young woman they see someone who has all but given up on life. Stuck in a boring, minimum-pay job that’s going nowhere, Jean lives alone in her dark, ratty, one-room flat, sharing a bathroom with the other tenants. Her stale social life revolves around cigarettes, tossing back gin and tonics at the local pub with her friend Dawn and her husband Mick and occasionally finding meaningless sex with anyone who’ll come home with her.
As the play opens Roy, Jean’s latest fling, rolls out of her bed naked, dresses and leaves without a good bye. He turns up later, however, eager for another roll in the hay and practically rapes Jean before he’s interrupted by the unexpected arrival of both Dawn and a surprise visit by his wife. A violent fight ensues between the couple, during which Jean’s bed is broken. After Roy and his angry wife Val storm off, Jean and Dawn make plans to hit the pub again after work. Act II is much later that night after Jean, Dawn and her husband Mick have closed down the pub. While there, they’ve run into Len, a friend from the old days whom they haven’t seen in years. They learn his job has brought him to Kilburn but that his wife has left him. The foursome return to Jean’s tiny flat for more booze, cigarettes and reminiscences about the past. Records play, songs are sung and the play ends with a few new confessions from a depressed, drunken Jean. Not surprisingly, Len ends up spending the night, but in a chair. The audience hopes that maybe this will become a turning point for these two lamentable souls.
This new theatre company decided to launch its first season by tackling Leigh’s challenging, 1979 drama. Cole Theatre, whose name is derived from the Greek word for “the people’s victory,” seeks to present plays in which underdogs journey to reach a better place. What makes this play especially difficult for a fledgling company is that this play has only played once before in Chicago and offers very little in the way of plot, yet the characters have to be compelling, feel natural and sound as if they hail from all over Great Britain. Therefore it becomes a challenge for not only the six-member cast but for their audience to master and understand so many different dialects.
Red Orchid Theatre director Shade Murray, who guest helms this production, has a special affinity for Mike Leigh’s work and feels this is a particularly apropos choice for a storefront theatre. Murray has staged his production using the intimate theatre space to his advantage, conveying the claustrophobic nature of Jean’s world on this tiny stage. He wisely prevents his actors from “acting,” which would’ve robbed this play of all its naturalism. David Woolley’s fight direction is exciting, sound and well-executed. Elise Kauzlaric has worked wonders in coaching the many dialects demanded by the script, being especially effective with Maura Kidwell; although unfortunately Michaela Petro’s Birmingham accent is often so strong as to make her unintelligible much of the time. Grant Sabin’s realistic set is period perfect and appropriately dingy, without being dirty.
Maura Kidwell offers a spot-on performance as Jean. She’s attractive and personable, but easily conveys her character’s despair and hopelessness. If Ms. Kidwell didn’t display those brief moments of abandon and likability the audience might call Jean pathetic; but as Ms. Kidwell plays her, we leave the theatre wanting only the best for this young lady. Despite her extraordinarily thick accent, Michaela Petro’s Dawn is truly lovable. She’s loud, bawdy and although what she says most of the time is difficult to decipher, her tone and body language make up for it. Ms. Pertro’s character could be compared to a young Julie Walters during her early stage and screen work. Layne Manzer brings a sweet nerdish quality to Len, the lonely, somewhat shy, reticent, sad young man whose nerves seem to continually get the best of him. Mr. Manzer, while a strong actor, easily plays this reclusive, unassertive, earnest character with ease. Boyd Harris handles the good-old-boy role of Mick smoothly, nicely managing his Irish dialect without it ever becoming cliche. Joel Reitsma and Lauren Pizzi also show strength during their short stage time as Roy and Val.
For a brand new company, this theatre group bursts forth with admirable polish and energy. Hopefully they’ll be able to follow up with another well-executed production that will prove to Chicago audiences that this is an Equity company to be taken seriously. Certainly their premier production demonstrates a solid beginning, well-directed and competently acted and produced, while challenging its members and audiences with material that’s a cut above the norm. Hopefully the ecstasy will continue to surpass all the agony.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 28-September 28 by Cole Theatre at Old Town’s Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-747-6821 or by going to www.coletheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.