Chicago Theatre Review
The Reach and Remoteness of Love
Distance – Strawdog Theatre
Five characters in search of love, respect and their own individual identities are each challenged through their relationship with an elderly woman sinking into the depths of Alzheimers. Irene lives in Memphis, Tennessee, but she actually dwells in a nightmarish landscape that continually blends the past with the present. She’s a feisty lady confined to her home by dementia, which has ravaged her mind, robbing her of short term memory and often confusing and disorienting her. Irene suffers from severe mood swings creating a frustrating, Herculean burden for her daughter Luvie, as well as for her optimistic caregiver, Dolly. The two men surrounding Irene, Leonard, her trusted hairdresser, and Dylan, Dolly’s geeky young son, both deal with their own challenges and find their lives complicated by their interaction with these women.
Jerre Dye’s latest play is heartbreaking, yet it’s also filled with unexpected humor and tenderness. In this Chicago premiere, Mr. Dye once again works with the power that memories have over people, much as he did in his Jeff Award-winning play, “Cicada.” Dye, also known as a talented director and Chicago actor, acknowledged recently for his moving portrayal of a disillusioned minister in Gift Theatre’s “Grapes of Wrath,” has created a beautiful new play that is a must-see. Not only is the drama a masterpiece of unique characters and superbly poetic writing, it also confronts several contemporary issues. Mental illness, anger, loneliness, independence, respect and love are just some of the themes that journey along this Distance.
Strawdog’s stunning production, under the sensitive and driving direction of Erica Weiss, brings this script to life with fluidity and naturalism. Each scene seamlessly flows into the next, thanks to a spartanly-furnished set design by Ashley Ann Woods, complimented by John Kelly’s excellent lighting. Audiences will easily find themselves under the spell of these charming characters while being immersed within Irene’s world of chaos. Empathy for their story and a wish for some kind of happily-ever-after for everyone is inevitable. Because Ms. Weiss has coaxed honest portrayals and guided realistic interactions from her talented cast, we almost feel as if we’re eavesdropping on this quintet of individuals.
The entire cast is sensational. Janice O’Neill is the center of this drama playing Irene. A woman experiencing Alzheimers in her later years, suffering from so much confusion, the actress fluctuates between childlike devotion and bitter resentment, all within the blink of an eye. Ms. O’Neill is an absolute revelation. She can be a raging harpy one minute and, within seconds, turn into an angel of sweetness and love. Most of her finer, more gentle moments result from interactions with her longtime friend and hairdresser, Leonard. Stephen Rader is both hilarious, as the flaming Southern belle, who’d be at home in a production of “Steel Magnolias,” and, in special moments, poignantly moving while recalling the pain of his own past. More often, however, Rader’s Leonard is a funny, flamboyant and the outspoken voice of reason in this story. His gentle spirit shines through, particularly gracious with Dolly, or when combing out Miss Irene’s hair in the comfort of her own home. Leonard’s compassion stems from an incident many years ago, a secret he eventually shares with his new friend, Dolly.
Dolly is another angel of mercy in this play, a lady who enjoys helping all those less fortunate around her. As sublimely played by Loretta Rezos, this charming, humane, optimistic woman offers grace, kindness and humor to everyone. She’s a beacon of hope, not only to her charge, Irene, but to her troubled son Dylan, as well as Irene’s frustrated and bewildered daughter, Luvie, and eventually to Leonard. Dolly is a woman who sees a world filled with opportunities for everyone, a glass-half-full kind of person, who thinks of herself last. In Ms. Rezos’ capable hands this wonderful woman comes to life and eventually finds the courage to live for herself, thanks to Leonard.
Anita Deely elicits the audience’s sympathy as a middle-aged daughter, whose husband recently left her and who’s lost all patience dealing with a mother who has never shown any kind of love or support. As Irene’s declining condition worsens and makes her more savage and unmanageable, Ms. Deely shows us someone at her wits end, a woman who must suddenly reverse roles, turning from disheartened daughter to a caregiving, maternal figure for her own ailing mother.
As Dylan, Dolly’s socially inept, electronics-obsessed millennial son, Caleb Fullen spews four-letter expletives like confetti. Content to simply live with his mother, collect a paycheck at the Verizon store and come home every night to an evening of video games and TV, Dylan seems to lack care and compassion for anyone. His father left him when he was a kid, and Dylan’s become a recluse. As engagingly played by Mr. Fullen, later in the play Dylan finds a special moment of connection with Irene that surprises everyone, including himself. It becomes Dylan’s defining moment and a changing point in this young man’s life.
Enough good things cannot be said both about this new play and Strawdog’s production. Jerre Dye’s script is filled with realistic speech and scenes that overlap and meld together, creating a powerful story about the spaces that exist between memories and the ability to love. Under Erica Weiss’ sensitive direction, her terrific actors become these five memorable, three-dimensional characters who weave a mesmerizing story about the reach and remoteness of love.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 25-October 1 by Strawdog Theatre at the Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111 or by going to www.strawdog.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.