Chicago Theatre Review
Lurking in the Foggy Shadows
The Unfortunates – SoLo Chicago
On a misty, cold November night, a 25-year-old British woman named Mary Jane Kelly slips into Whitechapel’s Ten Bells Public House, seeking a bit of warmth. She doesn’t know it, but this will be the final hour of Miss Kelly’s life. Mary Kelly is an “Unfortunate,” one of the many destitute, desperate women who must resort to prostitution in order to barely survive in this lower class London neighborhood. It’s 1888 and the East End is not only a district marked by unspeakable poverty and squalor, it’s a region haunted by a ruthless murderer lurking in the foggy shadows.
Aoise Stratford’s award-winning one-woman play is a fictionalized account of the woman most authorities consider to be Jack the Ripper’s last victim. What happened to the infamous serious killer, following this heinous crime, is not certain. But Ms. Stratford isn’t concerned with that. The prolific Australian playwright focuses instead on his final victim, Mary Jane Kelly. In creating an honest, three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood portrayal of an actual individual, Ms. Stratford makes real a person only known to most people as a statistic.
On this particular night, with the fog swirling outside the window, Mary Jane Kelly is seeking some temporary shelter and perhaps searching for a sympathetic ear…maybe more. The poor woman’s behind in her rent, her abusive lover has left her and she’s lost the key to the run-down room they shared. Thinking she’s alone in this pub, Mary’s startled to find a lone customer drinking by himself in the darkness. At first she’s understandably cautious of this stranger, but Mary Jane eventually finds herself opening up to him about her life. She shares stories and anecdotes about all the people who’ve shaped the woman she’s now become. As she relates events from her past, Mary breathes life into the names of the men and women she’s known. They include Davies, her young Welsh husband, who died in a mining explosion; her older cousin who took Mary Jane into her home and trained her in the fine art of sexual hustling; a wealthy customer named Edward March whose kinky demands took Mary Jane to Paris; and her most recent lover, the abusive fish market worker, Joe Barnett. Mary also gives a face to at least two of her best girlfriends, fellow ladies of the night, who sadly became earlier victims of Jack the Ripper. She senses that, in this unseen mysterious man, she may have found a customer willing to buy from her an authentic Ripper souvenir, a scrap of bloody ribbon Mary secretly tore from the bonnet of her murdered friend, Cath. It’s personally dear to Mary as the only memento she has of her dear companion. But as a means of paying the rent, it’s even more valuable.
As Mary Jane Kelly drinks, banters, flirts and reminisces about all the men and women she’s known, a sadness pervades the shadows, in spite of the laughter provoked by Mary Jane’s broad impersonations of various characters. As the brass and feisty, yet thoroughly likable, young streetwalker, Gail Rastorfer is magnificent. She captures the indomitable spirit of a strong woman on her own during the Victorian Era. Her Mary Jane is a rock, a true survivor who’s become skillful at using every resource at her disposal to keep going. Despite her character’s image as a hardened bad-ass, Ms. Rastorfer’s natural warmth and charm continually peek through, making this character honest, humane and someone we care about very much.
Despite the knowledge that this is a solo performance, director Kurt Johns has staged this play with so much variety and such a threatening air of mystery that he’s kept us on the edge of our seats. The stranger, although never actually seen by the audience, is as real as all the other characters Ms. Rastorfer creates out of light, shadow and her imagination. Under Johns’ guidance, the actress places this lone patron out in the audience, magically bringing us into the story and allowing each theatergoer to become Ms. Rastorfer’s scene partner. Each slight movement, every flick of her eye or turn of her head, along with Ms. Rastorfer’s mastery of several British dialects, makes this performance exquisite and well-rounded.
Add to this excellent performance, Jennifer Thusing’s authentic-looking English pub setting, particularly enhanced by Paul Deziel’s eerie, realistic projections that keep the fog swirling, the rain falling and a cast of shadowy figures passing by the window. Heather Skye Sparling’s moody lighting design adds to the mysterious atmosphere, as does Eric Backus’ finely-tuned soundtrack of music and the noises of things going bump in the night.
SoloChicago has another hit to its credit, on the recent heels of their previous excellent production of “Churchill.” Kurt Johns has found an exciting, spine-tingling play that’s deserving of this company’s typically professional production. It’s a captivating portrait of a real person, a strong, admirable survivor who becomes much more than a mere statistic as Jack the Ripper’s last victim. And in Gail Rastorfer’s hands, guided by Kurt Johns and his gifted technical team, this play is an absolute must-see, guaranteed to bring chills to a warm summer Chicago night.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 17-July 10 by SoloChicago at Theater Wit,
1229 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Theater Wit box office, by calling them at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.