Chicago Theatre Review
Overcoming Her Blind Spot
In the Wake – The Comrades
In 2010, three years before her Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home” took Broadway by storm, Lisa Kron’s “In the Wake” premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This two-act play tells about a group of friends living in New York City during the backdrop of the Bush years. The play opens on Thanksgiving Day following George W’s controversial presidential election over Al Gore in 2000. It then spans the next five years, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans and Bush’s ultimate re-election in 2004.
Kron’s drama focuses on a smart, thirty-something woman named Ellen, a self-proclaimed political news junkie. She acknowledges that she’s a fortunate person who’s never experienced heartbreak. Ellen feels her life is simply predetermined to be calm, stable and absolutely secure, despite all the chaos going on around her. Like many Americans, Ellen always assumed that if she was thoughtful, well-meaning, diligent and good, she could weather the adversity around her and emerge intact. Ellen tells her friends that with enough courage and a willingness to grow she’ll be able to escape any sacrifice or loss. Ellen finally admits that this is her blind spot.
Through this drama, Ms. Kron takes on the notion of middle-class neoliberalism and the ridiculously impossible notion of having it all. The play is peppered with multifaceted characters and startlingly realistic dialogue, especially as seen through Ellen’s loquacious, long-winded speeches. The girl just can’t stop talking and admits to this weakness, frequently telling herself to shut up. Ellen’s lover, Danny, is a gifted elementary school teacher who teases her about her political passion, but seldom engages in debates with her. He allows Ellen her freedom in all things, including letting her explore a romantic relationship with Amy, an old high school friend. He feels that if he lets Ellen get these things out of her system she’ll eventually choose to remain with him.
Other members of Ellen’s world include Kayla, Danny’s lesbian sister, and her wife Laurie. Both women are sharp, witty and politically involved. They’re a loving couple who are considering having a baby, but they question the kind of world in which this child would live. Judy is another of Ellen’s friends, a cynical aid worker who’s just returned from an African refugee camp. Upon returning home, she suddenly finds herself having to raise her high school-aged niece, Tessa, a teenager of mixed race. Judy explains to Ellen why she’s never voted in any election. She confides that it’s a myth to think that the American system provides a place for everyone, and so she just chooses to ignore it.
This terrific directing debut with The Comrades comes from Alex Mallory. She understands all the nuances and quirks of these interesting characters and has guided her seven-member cast to some sublime performances. Rachel Rauscher’s scenic design, while not especially artistic, allows for the required versatile demands of locale. It also provides a canvas for G. “Max” Maxin IV’s excellent projections, a montage of news footage that effectively sets the stage for each scene. Alycia Matz’s costumes feel appropriately character-driven; and Nicholas Coso’s lighting gives focus where it’s needed.
Rose Sengenberger does a monumental job as the verbose, idealistic Ellen. The actress is both eloquent and passionately earnest, playing right into her character’s blind spot, as Ellen calls it. Her character is quite unable to comprehend that, despite feeling that she’s living in the best of all possible worlds, she’s unable to see what’s right in front of her face. Mike Newquist, a talented actor who appeared in this company’s “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Mary-Kate Olsen is in Love,” is easy-going, honest and nicely realistic as Danny. His nurturing behavior, his candor, care and comic timing all add to his natural portrayal of a loving soulmate.
Adrienne Matzen shows strength and humanity as Kayla. She’s especially brilliant in her eleventh hour speech to Ellen about the reasons for her life-changing decision to relocate to Madison, Wisconsin. Samantha Newcomb makes her Chicago theatre debut as Tessa. She creates a sensitive teenager from a small town who has had to quickly adjust to a lot of new situations and ideas. Erin O’Brien is sensational as Laurie, Kayla’s other half. She’s sharp, witty and knows how to deliver a line that hits the bullseye of her intended target. O’Brien’s character is like a skilled poker player, hiding her hand from the other players until the final reveal. While not always agreeing with Ellen, she keeps up a good front. Another recent Chicago transplant, hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of this talented actress.
Alison Plott, a founding member of The Comrades, is emotionally endearing as Amy, Ellen’s old schoolmate and new lover. As a perceptive, experimental filmmaker, Amy has an artistic eye on the world around her that Ellen lacks; but she still allows herself to fall in love with a woman she ultimately knows she can’t have. Perhaps the finest performance in this production comes from Kelli Walker, a fiercely gifted actor who has been seen on practically every storefront stage in Chicago. As Judy, Walker creates a strangely compelling, charismatic yet humorously cynical character who doesn’t believe in the American political system and, especially, the reality of the American Dream. She delivers a moving speech to Ellen in the final moments of this play that eventually gets to the heart of this play.
In Lisa Kron’s fascinating drama we meet a protagonist who’s liberal, smart, compassionate and given to unedited, heartfelt oration. She understands all the right things to say and knows all the right answers. But Ellen’s mistake is that she fails to see and overcome her own blind spot. This is her fatal flaw. In the end she finally understands what she’s been missing and Ellen finds that, as Amy has explained to her, the negative space has ultimately taken over her life.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 27-August 26 by The Comrades at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
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