Chicago Theatre Review
The Three Sisters of Sligo
The Night Season – Strawdog Theatre
This, the final production of Strawdog Theatre’s 29th season, is the second of several plays written by British actress/playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Previously produced at London’s National Theatre, this comic drama plays like a mashup of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” and Marie Jones’ “Stones in His Pockets.” Written with charm and an actor’s empathy for the performer, this is a dramatic piece that provides each of its seven characters with his or her own special moments to shine, which sometimes weakens the dramatic flow of the play.
Lenkiewicz’s play revolves around the members of a tightly knit, female-centric, middle class family, in Sligo, Ireland. The Kennedy household is headed up by Patrick, the ever-drunken patriarch, whose wife Esther abandoned her family years ago to begin a new life in London. His grown daughters Rose, Judith and Maud run the household, each coping with her own individual problems and desires. Lily is the girls’ batty grandmother, whose selective memory and frank observations bounce around in a potpourri of humorous non sequiturs. Their ordinary lives change in various ways with the arrival of an American film unit, planning to make a romantic biopic about Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Instead of staying at a hotel, John, an English actor cast in the title role, has requested instead to stay with a typical Irish family, and the Kennedy clan volunteered. How his visit affects each member of the family is the focus of this play.
The strength of Lenkiewicz’s drama can be attributed to the actress’ influence by and knowledge of the work of other playwrights, as well as an unflinching eye and ear for realistic dialogue and situations. This Chekhovian flavored drama mainly focuses on the three sisters. Rose, masterfully played by Michaela Petro, is the real backbone of the family. Called a spinster by her gran, Rose prefers “single.” However, she falls hard for John, the handsome young actor renting out her bedroom. Justine C. Turner captures all the prim loneliness of middle daughter, Judith, the quiet, cerebral town librarian. Pretending to be content with her solitary life, Judith secretly pines for the love of chess aficionado, Gary (in a fine performance by Michael Reyes). As youngest sister Maud, Stella Martin bristles in her quest for a love life and sexual independence. She’s a kind young woman, but a rebel, who’s hopelessly attracted to a guy determined to travel to Moscow, another reference to the works of Chekhov.
Although every character in this play becomes the star of one or more scene, it’s Lily who consistently shines the brightest. Clearly she’s Lenkiewicz’s favorite character, and she remains the most memorable. Perfectly portrayed by talented Janice O’Neill, this odd, sassy, independent grandma peppers her witticisms and criticisms with Biblical verses, theatrical quotes, lyrics from old songs and lines from vintage movies. She shocks with her frank pronouncements, humorously spouting unexpected four-letter words when they’re least expected.
The male characters are a bit less complicated and, as a result, not quite as interesting as the women. John Henry Roberts portrays a kind, empathetic actor struggling with his own personal demons, but who provides some much-needed attention and affection for both Rose and, especially, Lily. Michael Reyes’ Gary is a stalwart, standup fellow who offers Judith his love and support, even when she doesn’t realize she needs it. As Patrick, the whiskey-swilling, skirt-chasing, domineering patriarch of the Kennedy family, Jamie Vann plays his role to the hilt. A bellowing, boisterous father, who squanders every penny on liquor, this often-inebriated blue collar worker frequently fancies himself an Irish version of King Lear. He sees his three very different daughters and his aging, sometimes senile mother-in-law, as his dependents whom he loves yet allows to survive on their own.
Freelance director Elly Green returns to Strawdog, following her earlier achievement directing “After Miss Julie.” Here she guides this ensemble of skilled actors with feeling, eliciting the best performances possible. She choreographs her cast around Mike Mroch’s clever, economical in-the-round scenic design with the skill of an air traffic controller. Scenes frequently overlap and blend into each another with fluidity, keeping the play moving like the ebb and flow of the surrounding ocean. Claire Chrzan’s lighting is dark and moody, while a sound design by Heath Hays is filled with old movie dialogue and familiar songs. Brittany Dee Bodley costumes her cast with a contemporary casualness that feels homely and realistic, and Sammi Grant keeps her cast dialect-perfect.
In a worthy finale to Strawdog Theatre’s 2016-17 season, we have a strongly acted, melancholy, slice-of-life drama that’s liberally laced with unexpected comedy. But more importantly, this play meshes honest emotion and realistic situations with a not-so-thinly veiled allusion to other works, especially those of Chekhov. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s slight storyline is an excuse to examine three sisters of Sligo, all close and yet very different. We observe them living their everyday lives with their lovable, doddering grandmother and bombastic, liquored-up father. We also watch the sisters searching for love, sometimes in all the wrong places. But, as the playwright says, this is a look at the frailty of people trying to connect with each other or with something in the world. This play is a bit choppy and somewhat episodic, but the production offers an entertaining, enlightening character study of a family simply trying to make it through the night.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 12-June 24 by Strawdog Theatre Company at the Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard Street, 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.