Chicago Theatre Review
White Whine and Cheese
Phantom Pain, a new play by Barbara Lhota
A conversation play, generally recognized by the action focusing on two or more characters with conflicting views hashing out questions of history or ethics, is a tricky thing to pull off. It can either make for great drama, if the characters in question are well drawn and deeply entangled with their argument, or it can get very muddy very quickly. In Barbara Lhota’s Phantom Pain, two childhood friends from Detroit, Marnie (Lisa Herceg) and Angela (Pamela White-Raines) are each others touchstone, the others second home. They sing old Motown classics, swap annoyances with the world at large, and don’t talk about their traumas as girls growing up on opposite sides of the color line. But Bets (Kristen Williams) their third Musketeer, returns after more than twenty years of absence with a pocketful full of “non-pc” opinions and a desire to hash out the two defining assaults of their girlhood.
I imagine Phantom Pain reads much better than it plays. Lhota’s script rings with zingers and the reevaluations the women turn on each other are well fleshed. But the different stages and thresholds of the argument are askew, stuck together instead of groan as one continuous whole, which lets the thunder out of her impassioned arguments. Just like in life it’s hard to make your brilliant point stick if it comes out of nowhere and isn’t followed through. More irksomely the story is spotted over by flashbacks to the girls childhood friendship, some moving and informative others without purpose (the reenactments of the assaults themselves are particularly unfortunate). Still, Lhota carries a good deal of comedy even through the darker patches, and gives all three sides of her argument equal conviction.
A particularly fine performance is handed off by Stephanie Sullivan as Marnie’s wife Meg, our litmus strip to test each of tonights debaters and unofficial referee. Sullivan brings a lively sense of play to Meg’s marriage catching up her wife and schnoodling her. She also manages to carry out her own one liners (sometimes awkward one liners) with a straightforward elegance and demonstrates a gift for truly listening to her fellow players, which goes a long way to convincing us to listen too. White-Raines is also having a ball of a time; her steely, eloquent discussions of what define a racist act are interspersed by splendidly pitched nonsequtors of a woman speaking through wine.
I imagine Phantom Pain would make an excellent novella; building arguments and revealing memories, and dwelling on the unspoken shocks of women who thought they knew each other. As a play it falls short of its potential and muddies its argument more often than not. Still, it airs issues that ought to be heard, about white “fragility” and the unseen wounds on black Americans. About what it’s like to live without safety, or love, or respect. About how a story, of our nation, or our hometown, or our childhood ought to be viewed. So thank goodness someone wrote a conversation about it.
Somewhat Recommended by Ben Kemper
3/ 15th to 4/2
Greenhouse Theater 2257 N. Lincoln St. (Near Fullerton station)
Wed, Thur, Fri, and Sat at 8:00, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00
Tickets $25 found online at www.organictheater.org
For more information on this or other shows visit www.theaterinchicago.com