Chicago Theatre Review
That Deaf, Blind Drag Queen
Miracle! – Hell in a Handbag
Back in 1957 William Gibson adapted Helen Keller’s inspiring autobiography, The Story of My Life, into a Tony Award-winning play. The production earned Awards for Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, who played Anne Sullivan and young Helen Keller, respectively. In 1962 the play was turned into a popular, critically acclaimed film, with Ms. Bancroft and Ms. Duke reprising their roles, and winning Oscars for their performances.
Chicago’s Hell in a Handbag Productions is primarily known for their over-the-top stage parodies of B-movies, usually both written by and starring Artistic Director, David Cerda. Now the company brings the Midwest Premiere of Dan Savage’s LGBT take on Gibson’s play to the Windy City. Savage, a University of Illinois graduate and celebrated Gay Activist, advice columnist (“Savage Love”), author (The Kid), theatrical director and creator of the acclaimed anti-bullying site, the “It Gets Better Project,” wrote this hilarious parody about another “deaf, dumb and blind kid.”
When she was only a baby, Helen Stellar contracted an illness that left her blind, deaf and able to communicate only through grunts and screams. She was fathered by drag queen, Crystal Pain, in an accidental moment of heterosexual lust. Ms. Pain took Helen under her wing and raised her with love but without much discipline. As a result, Helen, like her famous namesake, grew from wild child to spoiled young lady. As an aspiring drag star, Helen is pitied and tolerated by everyone around her at Ms. Pain’s Brass Connection nightclub. Resorting to temper tantrums to get her own way, Helen has become an uncontrollable animal, who, like her drag mama, enjoys performing on stage. When another young drag star, Bailey Legal, becomes exasperated by Helen’s behavior, he calls Family Services. They send a young, novice teacher, Annie Sullivan, to work with Helen, simply in the hopes of civilizing her. But Annie’s goals are greater than to simply make Helen obedient; she wants to teach her young student the power of words, language and self-expression. This two-act comedy, which sports broadly comic characters, bawdy adult humor and gleefully gay lip-syncing drag performances, is a brilliant, well-written parody of an American classic. But more than that, Savage’s entertaining play is a reminder of the importance of finding one’s own voice.
Derek Van Barham, who’s made quite a name for himself as one of Chicago’s finest directors, has guided his cast toward a luminous production. The performances are high camp, but founded in the heart and soul of this story. Laughter is with these characters, never at them. Helen, Annie, Crystal and all the other characters are very funny, yet they still manage to earn our empathy and understanding. Van Barham’s production clips along with nary a dull moment, moving from scene to scene with choreographed cleverness. Thanks to the artistry of Kate Setzer Kamphausen, Jacob Green and Sydney Genco, the cast looks stunning, bedecked in their glitzy costumes, outlandish wigs and bizarre makeups. And Mikey Moran’s pumping sound design keeps the production humming, while choreography by Steve Love and Terry McCarthy helps the actors trip the light fantastically fabulous.
The cast is sensational. Steve Love gives a heartfelt, memorable performance as Helen. His journey from manic monster to stylish superstar is measured and momentous. He’s matched by ensemble member Elizabeth Lesinski as Annie Sullivan. Often seen in previous Hell in a Handbag productions, this may be the actress’ finest role. Honest, poignant and brave, Ms. Lesinski throws herself into this role with everything she’s got. Her skill communicating through ASL is especially authentic, artistic and precise. The frantic dressing room scene (mirroring the famous dining room battle from ”The Miracle Worker” ) is both beautifully acted and a finely choreographed tribute to Gibson’s play. When both Love and Lesinski perform their three-part dual drag number, which represents several weeks of patience and progress, we see two accomplished actors at the height of their craft.
David Cerda is delicious as Crystal Pain, bringing a much-welcomed sincerity and nuanced maternal quality to her character. Willing to step back and let others shine in the spotlight, Mr. Cerda once again demonstrates both his talent, as well as his unlimited generosity as Artistic Director of this company. Laura Coleman is Janet, a touching, truthfully played, shy stage manger and devoted friend. The inimitable Ed Jones, always hilarious and over-the-top, is terribly funny, but wisely restrained, as Gloria Blaze. Kristopher Bottrall’s young drag star wannabe, Bailey Legal, is the whistle blower in this piece. If Mr. Cerda represents Captain Keller in this parody, Jones is Kate Keller and Bottrall is the play’s stand-in for their cynically wise son, James. Jamie Smith, sassy and side-splitting as Sissy Jizzmore, is evocative of Aunt Ev from the original drama. Kudos to handsome, studly Joshua Peterson and Christopher young as the Bar Boy dancers; and Sydney Genco, Rachel Hadlock and Caitlin Jackson are excellent in smaller roles as characters from the lesbian bar across town.
Patterned scene-for-scene after William Gibson’s classic American drama, “The Miracle Worker,” Dan Savage’s well-written parody is both a tribute to this play, as well as a side-splitting comedy. It has heart, humor and supports the issue that everyone in this world, particularly individuals with special needs, requires a voice of his own. Art may provide entertainment, but its purpose is self-expression. This production, filled with love and laughter, is a sparkling celebration of that achievement.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 14-July 10 by Hell in a Handbag Productions at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark, Chicago.
Tickets are available by going to www.handbagproductions.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.